global English

A New Year regime?

It’s interesting the way the use of the word diet (and its translations) varies around the world and in different contexts.

I noticed this first in South America, but I’ve realized since that the same applies elsewhere too. In the UK, when we say diet, very often we mean some form of restriction, usually for the purpose of losing weight. ‘I’m going to have to go on a diet if I want to get into that dress for the party,’ is a pretty common thing to hear, especially at this time of year. But diet also, of course, means simply the entirety of what we eat. In Spanish (and increasingly in places like the US, from what I can gather), the more common word to use when you’re talking about dietary restriction, is regimen. To me, this makes more sense. Your diet is everything that you eat; if you’re eating less, for whatever reason, it’s either a restricted diet – accurate, but clunky – or a regimen, a programme of special eating, designed with a specific aim in mind.

The way that we take the word diet and apply it to restricted eating that’s designed to lose weight – ‘I’m on a diet‘ –  says something to me about society’s attitude to body image, food and health in general. We’re effectively saying that our previous eating habits (also a diet, but in the broader sense) were inherently wrong (which in some cases will, of course, be true) and that this new regime is correct, even if the new regime is nutritionally unsound. Going from eating nothing but take-aways, to eating nothing but cabbage soup might result in some weight loss, but it’s not going to do you a lot of good!

By appropriating the word diet for these kinds of fads, I feel like we’re telling ourselves that food is bad; eating a full, varied diet is wrong, eating a limited one is good, just because you’re on it. Yet the only reason it’s ‘good’ is because you’re denying yourself something (and that ‘something’ might actually be quite important – protein for example, or vitamins). Using diet also ignores the other key element of a healthy lifestyle – exercise, putting all the emphasis on what you eat, not what you do.

I’d much rather see the word regimen being used. It shows that we recognize this is something outside the norm, and also indicates the discipline that’s required to effectively lose weight, both in terms of your eating habits and your movement levels. It works equally well for if you’re trying to gain weight, a situation where you’d never say you were on a diet, but where your eating is being just as closely scrutinized and managed.

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Sharon Creese

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