The word diet is derived from the Greek ”diaita,” which means ”prescribed way of living,“ specifically by a physician (2). An inherent sense of health and wellness is indicated in the historical essence of the word. Popular culture, however, has formulated a completely different understanding, which is indicative in the dictionary definition. We optimally supply our bodies with nutritive, health promoting fuel from our diet; ironically, we also restrict our bodies of nutritive, health promoting fuel while on a diet. This confusing disparity has dominated the nutrition headlines in the past decades. The connotation of ”diet” has become so transformed, that the concept of health and diet is blurred, and often misconstrued. If health is defined by the food we eat, and the food we eat is our diet, then logic reasonably, but deceptively, tells us that dieting is healthy. This linguistic subtlety has inundated society, and despite an authentic attempt to maximize health, people may even unintentionally diminish their health through the mere misunderstanding of a word.
It is no coincidence that the modern evolution of calorie restricting diets appears correlated with the rise of both the ideal of slim body type, and the greatest public health threat of our time, obesity (3). Any adaptation to the optimal human image opens a considerable niche for monetary gain for those involved in the weight loss industry. Proponents from every school of ”fad diet” have their own rationale. Low fat diets, popular in the 80’s and 90’s, attest that since excess calories are stored as fat, dietary fat should be restricted (4). Low carbohydrate diets, popular in the early 2000’s, declare that since carbohydrates are the predominant source of bodily energy, their restriction forces the catabolism of alternative energy stores(5) presumably adipose. A perusal through the multitude of weight loss regimens finds restrictive variations of each macromolecule: protein, lipid, and carbohydrate.
An understanding of the intricacies of the human metabolic process raises warning flags against harsh restriction of any nutritive class. Each macromolecule has its own list of essential functions; life would not be sustainable or possible without a threshold level of each one. The processes that allow inter-conversion between lipid, carbohydrate, and protein are well understood, but excessive need for conversion creates an intuitive energetic burden and thus suboptimal functionality. Extreme nutritive restrictions may not even fulfill the rudimentary goal of weight loss. Very low fat diets barely outperform control diets, and are considered clinically insignificant (6). As well, despite an initial weight improvement with a low carbohydrate diet, weight change is insignificant after one year (7).
Evidence of the harmfulness of weight loss diets is becoming apparent. Excessive fat restriction can cause deleterious health consequences, especially on the hormonal cascade, which is predominantly lipid based (8). Low carbohydrate diets are even more problematic. They create a ketogenic, or starvation state, which is linked with dehydration, fatigue, and even bone density loss and neuropathy (9). As well, because the synthesis of serotonin relies on the insulin dependent uptake of tryptophan, the low carbohydrate diet is linked with dysthymia and depression (10). These findings, paired with knowledge that low carbohydrate diets are generally low in fruits, vegetables, and fibre, while relatively high in saturated and trans-fats, means that the protective effects against cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and digestive disturbance are not elicited.
The goal of a ”fad diet” is to maximally categorize the populace, since increased membership means increased wealth for diet distributors. Unfortunately, this is a gross simplification that completely discounts the individual. Each person functions uniquely on a microscopic level, with different energetic demands, allergic predispositions, and metabolic capacities. Thus, a ”one size fits all” approach to nutrition is not effective. The core naturopathic principle Tolle Totum, treat the whole person, understands that the nutritive needs of each person is exclusive. Nutritional research is finally confirming what those practicing nutritional medicine have known all along. Eating largely positive nutritive indicators such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains confers a favourable health status, whereas eating largely negative health indicators such as saturated/trans-fats and simple sugars does not (11). Otherwise, optimal health is situational, highly dependent on factors such as age, sex, body size/type, pre-existing medical condition(s), and level of activity.
An unconscious reclaiming of the ”diet” has begun in recent years. Consultations in optimal nutrition no longer focus on dietary restriction, but rather dietary balance. It is about empowering the individual, and cordially inviting them to adopt a holistic and healthy lifestyle. Will never eating refined sugar improve health? Surely. Is it sustainable? Definitely not. The most recent research in the field of medical nutrition strongly indicates that it is the overall nutrition, and not the individual components of it, that dictate the totality of health (12). That is, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This makes logical sense, since focusing on individual components ignores the complex interactions occurring between them. From a functional standpoint, this could not be more obvious, since we do not eat isolated nutrients in the first place.
It is becoming acutely evident that swift intervention is needed in order to avert, or at least palliate, the long list of over-nutrition and malnutrition confounders that are plaguing our population—obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer. Re-framing a simple definition has potential to restructure the understanding of health. We can diet in an attempt to lose weight despite our health, or we can challenge ourselves to embrace a healthy existence through the practical application of our diet. Scientific trials have explicitly severed the connection between ”fad-dieting” and health. An obvious and undeniable re-association of the historical context of diet and health is clearly indicated. This is accomplished by viewing ”diet” not as a prescription for eating, but as wholesome and integrated regimen of life.
1. Simpson, John, and Edmund Weiner. The Oxford English Dictionary. London: Oxford University Press, 2004.
2. Merriam-Webster, Inc. The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories. London: Merriam-Webster, 1995.
3. Jeffery, R, and J Utter. “The changing environment and population obestiy in the United States.” Obes. Res., 2003: 12-22.
4. Tarnower, Herman. The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet: Plus Dr. Tarnower’s Lifetime Keep-slim Program. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.
6. Pirozzo, S, C Summerbell, C Cameron, and P Glasziou. “Advice on low-fat diets for obesity.” Cochrane Database Syst Rev., 2002: CD003640.
7. Foster, G, et al. “A Randomized Trial of Low Carbohydrate Diet for Obesity.” The New England Journal of Medicine, 2003: 2082-2090.
8. Katan, M, S Grundy, and W Willett. “Should a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet be recommended for everyone? Beyond low-fat diets.” N. Engl. J. Med., 1997: 563-566.
9. Tapper-Gardzina, Y, N Cotugna, and C Vicker. “Should you recommend a low-card, high-protein diet?” Nurse Pract., 2002: 52-57.
10. Benton, D. “Carbohydrate ingestion, blood glucose, and mood.” Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev., 2002: 293-308.
11. Serra-Majem, L, B Roman, and R Estruch. “Scientific evidence of interventions using the Mediterranean diet: a systematic review.” Nutr Rev, 2006: 27-47.