"It's not a diet, it's a lifestyle." Sound familiar? Nowadays, more and more diets are being disguised as "lifestyles", but still promote the same ineffective practices. While frustrating, it makes sense. People are fed up with diets, and advertisers know it. Most of us are aware that 8-day cleanses and 30-day workout challenges won't solve our problems with food and body image. While we're certainly in favor of lifestyle change to promote sustainable, long-term health (that's what dietitians are here for!), calling something a sustainable lifestyle change when it is still a diet is harmful. Here are a few questions to ask yourself to determine if your health program is a diet in disguise:
1. What Are The Claims?
What is the program claiming it will accomplish? Help you lose weight? End cravings so you never want sugar again? Is it saying it will cure your chronic disease condition? Or, perhaps, the program is claiming that certain foods or food groups are the cause of your health or weight problems and should be eliminated altogether. All of these are warning signs that this program is actually a diet. Food is one piece of a healthy lifestyle but it isn't a cure-all. Broad claims are a warning sign that something is off.
2. Does It Encourage You To Ignore Internal Cues?
Some programs are more subtle about this than others. Some diets tell you to cue into hunger and fullness cues, but to prolong the time that passes between feeling hungry and actually eating. Others advise you to ignore adverse symptoms that you're experiencing after cutting out multiple food or macro-nutrient groups. Some programs claim that "all foods fit" but encourage you to count calories, points, or macros to determine how much you should eat. Remember, if it's forcing you to fight your internal cues, it won't be sustainable for long.
3. Are There Food Rules?
Are certain foods off limits? Does the program suggest waiting until a certain time to eat or mandate specific increments of time between meals? Maybe it has a list of certain "approved" foods to eat to stave off hunger, or requires that you join a group for accountability. Are there foods you are encouraged to reduce, or foods that are considered "free" while others are to be monitored? All these signs are indicators of diets and are red flags that this "lifestyle" can't be maintained long-term. No person or plan can determine at what times you'll be hungry or what types or amounts of food will satisfy that hunger. Even if it's been a long time since you were able to eat according to internal cues, these rules put you at odds with what your body is telling you, which decreases trust in your body and contributes to feelings of chaos and fear around food.
What's The Big Deal?
Research shows that the vast majority of people do not lose weight long-term when they diet. In fact, dieting often leads to even more weight gain and weight cycling (constantly gaining and losing weight), which has been proven to contribute to inflammation and poorer health outcomes [1,2]. Furthermore, when healthy behaviors like exercise and eating fruits and vegetables are only tied to weight loss, people who don't see immediate weight loss tend to stop the very behaviors that are beneficial long-term. Instead of making weight-centric goals, focus on improving healthy behaviors that you can control. Then, you will truly be cultivating a lifestyle you can enjoy long-term.
 Montani J-P, Schutz Y, Dulloo AG. Dieting and weight cycling as risk factors for cardiometabolic diseases: who is really at risk? Obesity Reviews 16: 7–18, 2015.
 Tylka TL, Annunziato RA, Burgard D, Daníelsdóttir S, Shuman E, Davis C, Calogero RM. The Weight-Inclusive versus Weight-Normative Approach to Health: Evaluating the Evidence for Prioritizing Well-Being over Weight Loss. Journal of Obesity 2014: 1–18, 2014.