Dieting Isn't The Answer, But Diet Is

What does diet mean? Do you know? Does the actual definition of the word match what you thought the definition was? Let's find out… 

According to Merriam-Webster (online), the food-related definition of diet is as follows:
(a) : food and drink regularly provided or consumed
(b) : habitual nourishment
(c) : the kind and amount of food prescribed for a person or animal for a special reason
(d) : a regimen of eating and drinking sparingly so as to reduce one's weight

As the definitions move from "a" down to "d" we can see that they degrade from an emphasis on lifestyle and nourishment to an emphasis on aesthetics and reducing one's weight. As such, it's very likely that the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word "diet" is some definition regarding the alteration of appearance by means of eating less. Diet, restriction, and appearance are so colloquially linked in our minds, in our media, in our society, that I think there has been a massive forgetfulness surrounding the "a," "b," and "c" definitions of the word. 

Let's consider where the word comes from, again sourced from Merriam-Webster online. There are many origins of the word, but most specifically I want to point out the following:
"…from Greek diaita, literally, manner of living, from diaitasthai to lead one's life"

From it's first known use in the 13th century, the word diet has gone from notating a general way of living, a way of eating, a pattern of habitual consumption, to signifying some kind of restriction regimen aimed specifically at altering bodyweight. The meanings of words shift all the time. This isn't a new phenomenon, and it's not particularly surprising either given the blatant obsession our culture has with appearances. However, while it may not be surprising, it is destructive and misleading.

While Urban Dictionary may not being the most reliable source of information, it does a good job of proving the point I'm trying to make here. The top definition on Urban Dictionary (online) for diet is "a four-letter word that often leads to deprivation, frustration, and ultimately, failure." The example sentence given is, "diet should not be in your vocabulary." 

What a sad way to view food. It really is no wonder that eating disorders run rampant among us all. -- If you're interested in seeing some numbers related to said prevalence, visit this link. -- What many people fail to understand and really appreciate is that food is fuel. Food may also be a source of pleasure (or pain) for some people in some situations, but when it comes right down to it, food is to our bodies as gasoline is to our cars. We NEED it, and we need ENOUGH of it to function properly and support activity.

On the surface it does seem intuitive that if eating too much can make you fat then the opposite should be true too. And, this isn't wholly inaccurate. Weight loss is achieved via caloric deficits; expending more energy than you are consuming. However, when eating less is taken to extremes and paired with physical activity it can really mess with some of your body's natural internal processes, most notably the metabolism. "What we see is that metabolic rate tends to trend downwards, and then [at] the breaking point, dramatically downshift. This is a perfectly valid survival response – reducing output will help protect you from running yourself right into the ground. If you keep forcing the same work with fewer calories, not only will you feel horrible, but thoughts of food (cravings) skyrocket in attempt to turn the ship around." "While it’s not a linear process, rest assured that at some point, your metabolic rate will slow down in order to keep you alive longer." (Eat To Perform - Metabolic Flexibility, pg. 28-29) When our groove is thrown off, so to speak, eating less stops working as effectively towards weight loss goals. It may even stop working altogether, so that any weight loss results come to a grinding halt.  And, when this happens, what is the response other than to eat even less. 

"Simply put, if your body wants ‘x’ amount of calories and you consistently feed it less and less, it adjusts. If you add in extreme activity, it adjusts to that as well. Adaptation cannot be stopped. For most people this adjustment increases their cortisol response and their body holds onto fat." "This example [eating less in conjunction with exercise] is harmful, and if they continue past the red line, not only will they struggle to reach their fat loss goals, but as they look to even more extreme measures to get a result, they further the toll they are taking on their bodies." (Eat To Perform - Metabolic Flexibility, pg. 25-26)

So... what about the opposite solution?
What about eating more instead?


I've had this discussion with more than a few people and suggested to them that they might try eating more to see weight loss results. The reaction is always the same; a total and complete disbelief and/or fear of even trying. Of course, witnessing or experiencing something for yourself will be the best form of persuasion, but in addition to that, I'm going to share a success story here.

This story has the classic beginning; a client who struggled with weight for the majority of her life, was always attempting a fad diet or other restriction of some kind, and who just could not seem to get any results. Her habits followed the traditional pattern of "doing well" (aka: eating very little) for a few days in a row,  then "blowing it" with a large meal (aka: satisfying her body's urging to eat more), and finally, "falling off the wagon." Five weeks ago, before starting the meal plan I wrote for her, she was sitting at 5'4'' and 185 pounds eating 1200-1300 calories a day. To give you an appropriate idea of just how low that number is, let's look at this client's basal metabolic rate (BMR). -- Your BMR is simply the amount of calories required to keep you functioning at rest. It's the energy requirement for your body to perform all of its internal functions. Your BMR doesn't even include the energy requirement for daily activities much less for additional fitness-related activities. -- This client's BMR at 5'4'' and 185 pounds is 1526 calories. So, even if she was eating at the high end of her previous 1200-1300 calories per day she was still eating about 250 LESS calories than her body needed just to function properly within.

A lot of factors went into determining the total caloric consumption in her current meal plan, but the main goal was to get her eating more. When I first checked in with her about a week into the plan she was already reporting to me that she was feeling much better via indicators like mood and energy levels. She was looking forward to her meals, and she was satisfied throughout the day, because she was eating much more than she had in a long time. Though it was a bit early to see weight loss results, she was already reaping the positive effects of properly fueling her body. These benefits had not disappeared when I spoke to her most recently to check in. In fact, they persisted or even improved, and she had seen weight loss of 5 pounds in the previous 4-5 weeks. That rate of about one pound per week is a very healthy one. It's an indicator that she is losing weight in a manner that her body can both cope with and maintain so long as she sticks with her current diet habits and hopefully takes this meal plan from being a temporary practice to being a longterm lifestyle adjustment.  

Really the only way to see longterm results with regards to diet is to adopt longterm habits. Following a temporary plan like a "fad" or "crash" diet or a cleanse may do the trick in the short term, but the results won't last. Why? 
(1) The sheer amount of restriction involved in fad diets is nearly impossible to maintain in the long term. 
(2) Much of the initial weight lost during fad diets is water weight that is quickly gained back at the close of the program.
(3) "Chronic under-eating [as required by fad diets] can set you up to overeat in the future as well." (Eat To Perform - Metabolic Flexibility, pg. 33) 

Not to mention, there are some very serious potential side effects of crash diets. One of the most basic risks is malnutrition. If you are severely reducing your caloric intake each day, then chances are, your micronutrient (vitamins and minerals) intake is also being severely reduced. Additionally, consuming an extremely low amount of calories can cause you to be lacking in one or more of your macronutrients; carbs, fats, and/or proteins, all of which are very important fuel for your body. Then there are effects like poor energy levels, inability to complete fitness programs, behavioral "pendulum swings" and feelings of guilt, fatigue, constipation, nausea, diarrhea, and gallstone formation. (Essentials of Personal Fitness Training, pg 495)

Speaking of the poor track record and potential risks of these types of diets, here is Google's definition of a "fad diet": "A fad diet is a weight loss plan or aid that promises dramatic results. These diets typically don't result in long-term weight loss and they are usually not very healthy. In fact, some of these diets can actually be dangerous to your health." To see more about how to pinpoint and avoid diets like this, visit this article by the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. 

There truly is no quick fix when it comes to diet and weight loss. Cleanses, detoxes, diet pills, caffeine, nicotine, and whatever other substances are out there marketed as "weight loss" agents are just that; marketing

Cleanses and detoxes are supposedly meant to "clean out" your system and "rid it of toxins." But, even assuming they do work, what happens when the program ends and you start putting all the same things into your body as you were before? You spend more money on another cleanse later down the line? Nonsense. A balanced diet rich in nutritious foods will do more for you than a gimmick like this could even begin to do. If you don't want 'yucky' things in your system, whatever that may mean to you, then don't consume them in the first place. THAT is how you cleanse your system.

Diet pills, caffeine, and nicotine are most notably used as appetite suppressants, and while they often times actually work, do you know what works even better? Eating nutrient dense foods that leave you feeling satisfied so that you don't have to deal with a constantly nagging appetite throughout the day. If your diet consists largely of "empty calories" (nutrient-less foods like pastries, sweets, and heavily processed foods) then it makes sense that you would feel hungry again shortly after eating. Those foods carry with them no satiety. In addition, if you're just not eating enough then it makes good sense that you'd feel hungry from a general lack of fuel and energy...

And here we are again; we've come full circle to the main idea of simply eating enough. 

Diet does not have to connote restriction, and it does not have to be unenjoyable. In fact, it shouldn't be! If you've been trying to lose weight to no avail via means of heavy restriction or following an endless string of fad diets, do yourself a favor and try eating more. 

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(1) To determine your basal metabolic rate (BMR): - Also includes the Harris Benedict formula to determine overall caloric intake.
(2) To determine your daily caloric needs:
(3) To have a stronger understanding of why you need to eat more, how to eat for performance, and to broaden your knowledge on the topics of caloric consumption and diet in general: read Mike T. Nelson's Metabolic Flexibility for Fat Loss. 

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As a fitness professional, an athlete, and an active member of multiple fitness forums, I see and hear about a heartbreaking amount of people basically starving themselves for the sake of aesthetics. We all just want to LOOK better. Even when there's no weight left to lose, we want to shed a few more pounds. We've got love handles, and chubby tummies, and thunder thighs, and stretch marks, and flabby arms, and saggy this, and puffy that. We've been taught to dislike these things about ourselves, and we do our best to change them through means of diet and exercise. 

But how many times have you seen someone practicing a regimen of diet and exercise and feeling just completely miserable? Chances are they just aren't eating enough to fuel the exercise they're doing. Hell, they might not even be eating enough to fuel their body when it's at rest, much less performing physical activity. Mood and energy levels severely decline in a state like this, and it makes us feel awful. But we do it anyway, because we think it's the only way. Too much food makes you fat, so less food (and even less and even less) will make you skinny (and even skinnier and even skinnier). 

Well I'm here to tell you that is WRONG. Diet does not have to be a source of anxiety or guilt. Eating should be something you can enjoy rather than dread, and it's really imperative to your health, and to weight loss goals if you have them, to be eating ENOUGH. I wish I could completely rid the world of the notion that we need to starve ourselves to be some version of "beautiful." But, since I can't, I'm writing this blog, because I strongly believe that IT MATTERS for people to understand what food means to our bodies.

Food is fuel. We just won't function properly without enough of it. It matters, because the applications of the information in this blog are endless…
Want to lose weight? Eat more.*
Want to build muscle? Eat more.*
Want to be stronger? Eat more.*
Want to be happier? Eat more.*
Want to feel more energized? Eat more.*
Want to sleep better at night? Eat more.*
Want to perform better during your workouts? Eat more.*
*The only caveat here being that you have to eat more of the RIGHT, nutrient-dense foods.

Have I made my point yet? Food is your friend. 
As Mike Nelson would say, the secret to "dieting" is to STOP DIETING. 

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(1) - definition of diet
(2) - "top definition" of diet
(3) - eating disorder statistics
(4) - basal metabolic rate calculation
(5) - fad diet information
(6) Nelson, Mike. Nobles, Paul. Eat To Perform's Metabolic Flexibility.
(7) Clark, Michael. Lucett, Scott. Sutton, Brian. NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training. Fourth Edition Revised. - negative health effects of very low calorie, fad, or crash diets