One of the things that I think often leads to online misunderstanding is a too-casual use of words.
Thus, recently, when Danielle Bean wrote about three things she hated about diets, she got enough of a reaction to write this second post. Instead of settling matters, the comments under that post have become a little contentious, as the various commenters throw around words like "diet," "fad diet," "healthy lifestyle," "healthy body image," "thin and healthy," "weight problem," and the like.
Whenever I've written about my struggles to lose weight, I've always said that my experiences will mean most to others those like me: women who need to lose, or have ever lost, more than 10% of their present body weight. In the context of those blog posts I've always tended to define a diet as a healthy eating plan designed to target any bad food habits I've picked up, reevaluate nutritional needs, and decrease calories enough to produce a weight-loss effect without robbing the body of energy or sending it into starvation mode. I've also defined exercise as a commitment to five days a week's aerobic activity (stationary bike riding) for a minimum of thirty minutes a day; I will have to add more as things progress.
In other words, when I say "diet," I don't mean, "fad diet," "weird diet plan of dubious value," or any other extreme method of weight loss of the sort that promises magic pound-shedding and a Hollywood figure in a ridiculously short amount of time. You don't have to tell those of us who've been at this a while that those don't work; we already know.
But there are a lot of women who look in the mirror or step on the scale ruefully on January 1st each year and realize that they've let themselves go, a bit. These are women whose normal weights are well within their ideal weight ranges, and even the few pounds they've put on, while making a favorite pair of pants (or a skirt--let's not have that fight again) fit uncomfortably, don't really push them into an unhealthy weight or BMI. At the most, they might need to lose up to 10% of their present body weight--and doctors and nutritionists agree that this isn't so hard to do; it's people who must lose significantly more than that who hit that first goal and then plateau, or worse, start to climb again in the phenomenon usually called yo-yo dieting.
However, for some of these women even the tiniest bit of weight gain is as productive of negative thoughts, self-loathing, insecurity, and the like as a fifty-pound gain might be for others. Among this group are those who are the biggest prey of the dubious fad diet industry; because their self-image is so caught up in some illusion of bodily perfection, a gain of only ten pounds is enough to send them scrambling for the latest popular diet plan or shopping for meal replacements and pills with a kind of panicked fervor.
Even for those who don't fall prey to this mentality, it's easy to become focused on that 10% weight loss to an extreme degree. Carefully cutting all of one's normal portions in half, for instance, or doubling one's daily exercise with a focus on the numbers on the scale and the clothes in the "thin" half of the closet can indeed be unhealthy; I don't think anyone, thin, plump, or otherwise, would disagree.
The problem comes in when we think that what the "10% group" means when they say, "diet," is the same as what the "need to lose a significant amount" group means when they say "diet." They don't mean the same thing by the term; the one means a temporary decrease in the number of calories consumed/number of calories burned followed by a balanced maintenance plan; the other means a total re-thinking of the role of food in one's life, an aggressive weight-loss program that includes calorie restriction and exercise, the possibility of counseling to tackle emotional eating issues and other problems that derail their best efforts, the potential that they will have to avoid certain high carb/high fat/high sugar "trigger foods" which are linked to these issues for the rest of their lives, and a maintenance plan that not only reflects certain health realities (like low-sodium plans for those with hypertension, or low-sugar plans for those who are borderline diabetic), but in no way resembles the old bad eating habits that accumulated for years and make it hard to know "instinctively" how to eat properly.
I think that one of the frustrations each group has with the other is that we're using the same words--but we're speaking different languages. I'll readily admit that I don't know what it's like to need to lose ten pounds, or even ten percent of my current weight. Right now, I need to lose at least 20% of my current weight in order to be in a healthy weight range--and whether that will be enough to take care of the health problem I'm trying to solve remains to be seen. But I can't lose that weight by giving up desserts I don't eat anyway, or leaving the cream out of the morning coffee I haven't had for years. I can't lose it by taking a twenty-minute walk twice a week, or skipping the potato chips with a lunchtime sandwich. Those little measures will work for five or ten pounds or so--but not for thirty.
So hearing someone say, as one of Danielle's commenters did, that she was back in her pre-pregnancy pants a few months after each child's birth (while she was still nursing) and that therefore anyone can do this, is as unhelpful and unkind as it would be for me to look at a friend genuinely distressed about a ten-pound gain and say, "What are you whining about, skinny girl? Ten pounds is nothing!" Unless we can all learn to listen a little more, to realize that we might mean different things when using the same "diet" words, and to put charity at the center of all of these conversations, we stand to lose a lot more than weight.