Dieter's Plate

What Is This Diet Thing You’re Talking About?

We’re feeling a bit fed up with diets. It seems that the principal use for that word – diet – is to empower people to talk past each other on Twitter. It’s also useful for labeling and dismissing a person. “Oh, she’s part of the diet industry.” That word has so much baggage that registered dietitians (RDs) have become registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs). Dilute that D-word and maybe it won’t taste so bitter.

Definition Problems

This word problem starts with a linguistic fork in the road. Going all the way back to its Greek roots, diet is a schizophrenic word. It can mean the food and drink we consume through our normal daily lives. Consistent with this sense, it can also describe our way of living. Food is the fabric of our lives in this sense. It comes from a Greek verb, diaitasthan, which means to live one’s life.

But also in Greek, diaita found usefulness very early on for describing something that a physician prescribed as a regimen for health. It could be food, or it could be lifestyle.

From these different, but related meanings, dysfunctional conversations spring forth. “Diets don’t work,” says one person. “As part of a bigger plan, of course they do,” says another. “Don’t be so patronizing,” says the first person. And the conversation is over.

Loaded with Emotion

Unfortunately, the dual set of meanings loads diet with intense emotions. The proscriptive definition of diet – a regimen of eating and drinking sparingly – simultaneously repels and attracts people. Resentment for a loss of freedom wells up in some people. Other people celebrate an exercise in self-discipline.

And ultimately for health, none of it matters. It’s the first meaning of diet – living our lives – that matters. If we fall into unhealthy patterns, we will suffer. Temporary changes – going on a diet – won’t fix it. But finding joy in a healthier pattern for life will.

Meanwhile, can we stop arguing about diets? Everyone is on a diet. But dieting is silly.

If you care to read up on the linguistic origins of diet, click here and here. Note that the second link takes you to page 402 of a large PDF.

Dieter’s Plate, photograph © m k / flickr

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December 3, 2017

4 Responses to “What Is This Diet Thing You’re Talking About?”

  1. December 03, 2017 at 7:22 am, Joe Gitchell said:

    Thank you, Ted, for helping me understand this in a way I never have. Language is so important.

    In my own focus area of nicotine, I see a somewhat similar phenomenon around the terms “smoking control” and “tobacco control”. I touched on this in closing remarks at the Global Forum on Nicotine 2017 in June (my remarks start around 9:45 at the link, but I mostly served as a useful “contrast” for the other closing presenters–very impressive!)–I feel another potential guest post coming on, Ted!! Just let me know what you think…. I can send you the text of my remarks if you don’t want to watch the vid.


    My employer, PinneyAssociates, provides consulting services on tobacco harm minimization (including nicotine replacement therapy and vapor products) to Niconovum USA, RJ Reynolds Vapor Company, and RAI Services Company, all subsidiaries of Reynolds American Inc. In the past three years, PinneyAssociates has consulted to NJOY on electronic cigarettes. I also own an interest in intellectual property for a novel nicotine medication.

  2. December 05, 2017 at 9:38 am, Sam said:

    I am a Canadian RD and the meaning of “diet” being a person’s usual intake is something that I often discuss with clients. I didn’t know that the Greek roots also had a dual definition. Super interesting!

  3. December 11, 2017 at 2:37 pm, Paul Ernsberger said:

    I have often heard it said that dietetics is the science of telling people not to eat.

    • December 11, 2017 at 4:23 pm, Ted said:

      Stay away from those apples.