What does the word diet mean to you?
It may surprise you that not everyone thinks the same. ‘Diet’ means different things to different people, and rightly so. The Merriam-Webster dictionary has four definitions for diet:
- Food and drink regularly provided or consumed
(A diet of fruits and vegetables; a vegetarian diet)
- The kind and amount of food prescribed for a person or animal for a special reason
(was put on a low-sodium diet)
- A regimen of eating and drinking sparingly so as to reduce one’s weight
(going on a diet)
- Habitual nourishment
(links between diet and disease)
Number three tends to get a lot of airplay, but for a more balanced view of diet, let’s explore all four a bit more.
1. What you eat and drink
Perhaps the most literal definition of diet, this simply summarises what you eat and drink.
Vegans eat a diet that’s purely plant-based and don’t eat anything made from animals; so lots of fruit and vegetables, no meat, no seafood, no poultry, no dairy and no eggs.
Vegetarians eat a diet of fruit and vegetables that may include eggs and/or dairy, but no meat, no poultry and no seafood.
Pescetarians eat a diet of seafood (pesce is Italian for fish), fruit and vegetables that may include eggs and/or dairy, but no meat and no poultry.
Omnivores eat an all-inclusive diet (omni is Latin for “all” or “every”) that includes fruit, vegetables, eggs, dairy, fish, meat and poultry.
2. Health-related diet
Following a special diet can be necessary for a variety of health reasons, with a health professional prescribing what can and can’t be eaten to avoid adverse health problems.
Those with food allergies, intolerances, gastrointestinal issues or medical conditions may need to adhere to a:
- Gluten-free diet – a diet free from all food containing gluten (a protein in wheat, barley and rye)
- Lactose-free diet – a diet with dairy restrictions due to issues with processing the lactose is some dairy foods
- Low FODMAP diet – a diet restricted to foods that are low in FODMAPs (a group of carbohydrates)
- Low-fat diet – a diet that restricts fat intake to reduce cholesterol levels and lower the risk of heart disease and obesity
- Low-sodium diet – a diet that restricts salt intake to reduce high blood pressure and lower the risk of heart disease
- Diabetes diet – a balanced diet of healthy food that’s eaten at regular meal times
3. Weight loss diet
Diet tends to be mentioned most in the context of “I’m on a diet”, “I need to go on a diet” or “I’m doing the insert the name of the latest popular diet here”.
In this instance, diet is about following strict food rules for the purpose of losing weight.
There are so many different types of these diets:
- Aktins Diet – a low carb, high protein diet
- Paleo Diet – the hunter-gatherer diet with no dairy, no grains, no sugar, no processed foods, no legumes, no starches and no alcohol
- Keto Diet – a low carb, high fat diet
- No Sugar Diet – a diet that replaces sugar with fresh whole foods
- Crash Diets – a diet consisting of one type of food such as cabbage soup
The potential problems with any kind of diet are:
- Any weight you lose while you’re on a diet can pile straight back on after the diet’s over.
- Diets can feel restrictive, can make dining out difficult, and can result in feelings of failure.
- Diets usually only focus on food and don’t account for the energy expended through exercise.
If you only focus on the energy in side of things (how many calories you consume in the form of food and drink), you’re not taking into account the other side of the body-weight equation – energy out – so you’re not connecting how many calories you’re getting from food with how many calories your body’s burning each day from exercising. When it comes to maintaining a healthy weight, the exercise you do is just as relevant as the food you eat.
Having a good understanding of how much food you need to eat each day to maintain a healthy weight (because you’re burning all the calories you’re eating) or to lose weight (because you’re burning more calories than you’re eating) is important. It helps you manage your portion sizes and eat in a way that’s aligned with your age, height, weight, gender and exercise regime.
4. A nourishing diet
Diet isn’t just about weight, health issues or describing yourself by the types of foods you eat. Diet is also about giving your body the vitamins and nutrients it needs to function at its best.
Essential vitamins and minerals are found in fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and meat alternative, healthy fats and dairy products. Therefore, it is important not to cut out entire food groups (unless advised to do so from a healthcare professional) as this often leads to nutritional deficiencies.
In terms of the bigger body picture, a diet that’s nutritious not only gives your body the fuel it needs, it also has an impact on how we feel and other aspects of how we look. Diet can affect everything from how full and happy you feel to whether your hair, skin and eyes look healthy.
Whilst a ‘bad diet’ obviously includes fatty foods like take away and sugary soft drinks, what constitutes a good diet that’s packed with vitamins and nutrients may not be so obvious; and there’s a lot more to it than just eating your 5-a-day.
The Australian Dietary Guidelines make it easy to understand how to eat for health and wellbeing and to reduce the risk of diet-related diseases and death.
By eating a balanced diet that’s driven by overall health and wellbeing, you’ll get enough of the nutrients essential for good health and also help to reduce your risk of chronic health problems such as obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even some types of cancer.