Remaining positive about our bodies and keeping our head above the water of diet culture is a constant struggle.
[Content Note: This article will discuss the use of the word “diet” in both a general sense and a restriction sense. The point of this post is to help dismantle diet culture and educate those on the effects of it. I understand if just reading the word is triggering for some folx. Please take care of yourself.]
When a doctor asks you about your diet they mean, of course, what foods you consume to keep you alive. Unless you’ve told them that you’re dieting, they generally don’t mean the restriction of calories and foods that your body needs (until of course, they do meant that). This is probably the most neutral manner in which we use this word and it’s still triggering and violent. The word diet needs to be stricken from our vocabulary until we’ve moved beyond diet culture as a society.
Diet in the most neutral terms means just the food you eat. “My diet consists of meats, veggies, fruits, and grains,” for example or “I’m trying to maintain a vegan diet”.
This is however, not how we use the word most often.
The vast majority of the time when we speak of diet, we are talking about dieting. “How’s your diet going? Did you try this new diet? I’m on a new diet!” are all common phrases that we hear all around us in our everyday lives. Which is why if someone asks you how your diet is and they legitimately mean “are you getting enough nutrients” most of us make the immediate association to “are you restricting enough?”
Diet is a weighted word that has come to mean, by and large, the act of dieting and food restriction. Even in body positive, no-diet talk spaces, using the word diet to speak of food choices colors all further conversation with the idea of restriction and all that comes with it. Well meaning suggestions are suddenly suspect and in the back of our mind we hear that programmed, little voice that is telling us that whatever we’re eating, it’s too much, it’s not right.
Kicking up this mental storm causes us to fall back into the same habits that diet culture supports. What Sonya Renee Taylor in her book, The Body Is Not An Apology calls the “Body-Shame Profit Complex (BSPC)” which speaks of how shame is used against us but is also the same mechanism as diet culture that sets the stage for companies to profit from out our self-hate. It is also a tool that keeps people, especially femme presenting people, oppressed. This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a negative effect on masculine folx, because it does, it is just that it is marketed much more heavily to femme folx.
Whether you refer to it as BSPC or diet culture, the result is still the same. It is a system that is created with the express purpose of profiting from the oppression and shame of people, by creating that oppression and shame. The way that it oppresses people are subtle. It does this with two fronts. One by directly making people believe they are less than until they achieve some level of weight loss or fitness goals. It’s that voice that says, “I can’t do this because I’m fat” or “I deserve this poor treatment because of my body.”
The second leg is creating the culture that makes it acceptable to treat people as less because of their bodies. This is the part that allows employers to see fat potential hires as sloppy and lazy — and not hire them, for example. These oppressions work across marginalization, hurting POC, those with disabilities, and those who live in poverty at disproportionate amounts as they are less likely to be able to access the tools that society says will alleviate these issues, such as gym memberships, nutritionally dense food, living environments where more physical movement is possible, healthcare, etc.
This is the weight that sits behind the word diet. These are the unsaid things that are being communicated when we casually say diet, even when we only mean, “what are you eating on a regular basis?”
This is especially rough for people who are dealing with health issues where food is a component of treatment. Someone who is dealing with diabetes will be consoled on diet which is really about food choices that will keep their glucose stable. Still, the mention of diet likely brings up the stereotype of their health issue being their fault for their weight or poor food choices (it is not).
Or if the patient is recovering from an ED. Imagine how triggering it must be to hear “high fat diet” when trying to move away from those destructive thoughts even when the person likely just means that more food with a higher fat content needs to be consumed.
This is why the word diet, in all its forms outside of when we are dealing directly with the harm it does, needs to be removed from our vocabulary. Remaining positive about our bodies and keeping our head above the water of diet culture is a constant struggle. We are assaulted by media and well-meaning comments in our general lives.
By striking the word from our vocabulary, even in the neutral sense, we start to close of the footholds that help the negative ideals that come with it from forming. How do we discuss food without the word diet though?
Since we’re removing the word, it does need to be replaced with something. Lucky for us, the English language is very colorful. Instead of diet, you can say menu, “What’s your basic menu like?” This is a great option because it already has an association with food with no shame attached, you’re just looking at options!
Some other good words are fare and subsistence. You can get old-timey and call food victuals or Biblical and go with daily bread. It’s not really important which replacement word you use. You’re looking for something that is easily identifiable as a food and does not have shame attached to it.
Is everyone going to jump on this concept? Of course not. Change comes slowly. We can start in ourselves though. Just stop using the word unless you’re talking about the restriction of calories or the culture of oppression. Give it no safe harbor in your life. It will take a concentrated effort before it becomes natural but the end result, a cleaner line from which to rid ourselves of oppressive shame, is totally worth it.