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I was sitting in a cafe, enjoying some boysenberry mascarpone toast (seriously, it was a great morning) and minding my own business when my ears were assaulted by Diet Culture. A woman seated at the table next to me commented as she perused the menu:

I’m trying to eat healthier without being on a diet.… Because if you tell yourself you’re on a diet you’ve already lost.

It doesn’t sound like such a big deal, right? Someone just wants to pay more attention to nutrition. You may have told yourself something similar.

And if you are telling yourself that you’re not on a diet, you’re probably still on a diet.

Sprinkle donuts with a bite taken out. Text overlay: "Telling Yourself You're Not on a Diet? You Probably Still Are."

In the not-too-distant past, diet started to be a dirty word. Even longstanding brands like Weight Watchers and Lean Cuisine rebranded to appeal to more modern sensibilities. 

But the underlying message never really changed. In other words, dieting went underground. It’s still there, trust me. It’s just dressed up in different language, as a diet in disguise.

In the process of shunning the icky, icky world of *dieting,* synonyms took over. Words and phrases like detox, lifestyle, clean eating, cleanse, portion control, cheat day, and wellness became proxies for diet and weight loss.

In my opinion, the sneakiest of these euphemisms are wellness and lifestyle. Sneaky because they sound so benevolent. Who wouldn’t want to achieve wellness? I mean, it’s literally the opposite of sickness, and who wants to be sick?

And lifestyle? Well, heck! It makes it sound so easy you can keep it up forever.

But ultimately, lifestyle = diet plan and wellness = weight loss. Case in point: a recent commercial for WW (AKA Weight Watchers) features the following conversation:

Oprah Winfrey: It’s not even a diet!

Happy WW-er: Noooooooo! It’s a lifestyle!

Has this Happy WW-er achieved wellness? The website implies that she has – and they place the number of pounds she she has lost front and center

When most say the phrase “it’s a lifestyle” it’s really a diet in disguise.

Text that says "It's not a diet, it's a lifestyle." The words "a lifestyle" are crossed out and replaced with "still a diet."

Additionally, WW’s website incorporates the tagline Wellness That Works™ – so I’m awarding bonus points for all the overtime work they put into the diet-synonym game. In the end, that “lifestyle” to achieve “wellness” is still a diet. Why? First, because the seemingly kinder, gentler program still places weight loss front and center. Plus, food is values are still counted via a point system, the expanded list of “zero-point” foods notwithstanding.

'It's not a diet, it's a lifestyle' actually means, 'It's still a diet but I call it something else.'Click To Tweet

If parsing vocabulary feels too perplexing to tell if you’re following a diet, try this. Instead of focusing on the shiny name of a wellness plan (keto! paleo!), or more general ideas like detox or clean eating, consider the underlying structure and assumptions of the wellness philosophy. This gets to the heart of the matter. It’s easy to think that just because you’re not on an incredibly strict fad eating plan, that it isn’t a diet after all. But deep down, it just might be.

1. Are there rules about what, when, and/or how much to eat?

Although rules provide structure for how to proceed, they ultimately keep you cut off from your own body’s cues of hunger, fullness, and satiety.

And of course, this refers to rules that exist to promote weight loss or overall, general health. Therefore, it would not apply if you chose a vegan diet out of concern for animal welfare. Another example is a medical condition such as celiac disease, or food allergies. Then it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) – don’t eat the foods that make you sick!

2. Are some foods more highly valued, particularly in a moralistic way?

Meaning, are you deemed successful if you eat certain foods and stay away from others? And does this success (or the lack thereof) reflect on your self-worth? Even the ubiquitous phrase “junk food” can affect your self-worth.

3. Is there an explicit or implicit promise of weight loss?

Or the promise could be any change to your body’s appearance that closely aligns with our culture’s current ideal body type. (Because ideal body types change with time.) And yes, this also goes for the idea that if you just love yourself enough to eat the “right” foods, you’ll “release” weight.

There is no known diet/lifestyle/program/magic potion that shows sustained weight loss over the long term. Do they work short term? Absolutely. But ultimately, diets contribute to weight cycling (AKA yo-yo dieting), which carries health risks.

If you see any or all of the above, then your wellness plan is a diet after all.

This all begs the question: what’s the alternative to diets in sheep’s clothing? If you really weren’t on a diet, what would that look like? Is such a thing even possible, without being doomed to couch-potatohood and a life of Cheetos?

The short answer is yes! Intuitive eating is the real nondiet approach to wellness. Intuitive eating helps you become in tune with your body’s cues of hunger, fullness, and satiety. It helps you be better in touch with your emotions, and ways to cope with life’s challenges other than eating. Intuitive eating recognizes that you are the expert of yourself.

But here’s a caveat. Because we live in a world where diet culture is the norm, it is easy to turn intuitive eating into just another diet. This is typically what is going on when people say that intuitive eating didn’t work for them. They either used the philosophy as a weight-loss method, or they approached the ten principles of intuitive eating the same way they’d approach diet rules. This is how intuitive eating gets overly simplified into “eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full” and if you keep eating beyond fullness, then you believe you’ve failed.

So while that fellow café patron might have been telling herself she wasn’t on a diet, her mind and body believed something else.

To get your mind pointed in the right direction, here’s how to get started with intuitive eating.


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