The word ‘diet’ is often used to describe cutting down on one’s food consumption. Usually to lose weight; the most common form of the practice. But how accurate is this understanding? Traditionally, ‘diet’ simply referred to the eating pattern of any person, animal, or community. The word dates back to Middle English and has its roots in Old French, diete (noun) or dieter (verb), via Latin, from the Greek diaita meaning ‘a way of life’. A brief look at the spectrum of dietary approaches and eating regimes may shed light on the all too common and misleading assumption that dieting is synonymous with eating less in order to achieve weight-loss.
One of the most well known and widely practised diets in the world today is the Keto (or Ketogenic) Diet. The Keto Diet aims to achieve weight-loss by increasing the level of fat consumed and, in-turn, the level of fat burnt. Fighting fat with fat; if you will. The combination of high-fat, substantial protein, and low carbohydrate levels induces a metabolic state called ketosis, whereby the body lacks the carbohydrates to burn for energy and instead turns to burning fat. Though this involves reducing our carbohydrate intake, it is not necessarily the case that our overall food consumption will decrease with it. In fact, the proportional increase in fat and protein can even result in the opposite outcome.
The Keto Diet, and other similar eating regimes such as the Mediterranean Diet (high in protein), are more about what you eat (food types as a ratio) rather than the overall quantity. This principle is also to be found in the recent shift towards nutrient-dense diets. That is, diets which are high in nutrients and low in processed foods. Again, these diets are generally less concerned abut quantity, emphasising instead the vitamin and mineral count; as well as the freshness of ingredients as a way of preserving nutritional value.
On the other hand, some dietary recommendations have very little to do with what we eat but, rather, when we eat it. For instance, eating fatty or stodgy foods earlier in the day so that we have longer periods of physical activity ahead of us before bed; in order to digest it. In turn, saving lighter meals and salads for afternoons and evenings. Maybe skipping dinner altogether! Another timing based eating regime involves separating one’s overall food consumption into smaller incremental meals throughout the day. This may actually involve eating the same amount of food as before, or possibly even more food, only now spread over a wider period of time. Or, in the case of certain fasting methods, condensing meals to a narrower window of time. One example is the 16:8 diet of fasting for 16 hours of the day and restricting all food consumption to the remaining 8 hours. Yet another version of fasting is the weekly 24-hour fast, eating nothing for 1 day out of every 7. Neither of these examples of fasting offer many specifications about the type or amount of food we should eat, when we do so.
Over 50% of adults in the UK are overweight or obese, as are 1 in 3 children aged 4-5 and 1 in 5 children aged 10-11. The common perception of dieting as the act of reducing or restricting overall consumption is largely due to the fact that obesity is such a common problem in the West; and eating less a common prescription. Dieting is a far more significant proposition than merely lowering consumption to lose weight. People voluntarily and consciously adjust their eating patterns for a vast array of reasons. Some of these motivations include: increasing energy, boosting the immune system, staving off chronic disease, improving mood, maintaining youthfulness, sharpening mental focus, lengthening life, and expressing devotion (spiritual, political, or otherwise!).
The question of what constitutes a diet will differ from person-to-person. That is to say, the outcome and effectiveness of a diet is not only contingent on the food, but on the person eating it. A 2015 study called the Personalized Nutrition Project, conducted at the Weizmann Institute of Science, found after continuously monitoring blood sugar levels in over a thousand people that the bodily response to all foods is highly individualised. For every food, whether it be pizza, ice cream, or sushi, there were people who had high responses in blood glucose levels, low responses, and everything in-between. Variations in genetics, lifestyle, and helpful bacteria mean that different bodies react differently to the same food. This explains why some diets work for some people and not for others. So, is it possible that we’re asking the wrong question? Could it be that a better question than ‘What is a diet?’ is to ask ourselves… ‘What is the diet for me?’