Why is "diet" a dirty word?

Whenever I’ve told people that I’m on a ‘special diet’, it’s usually met with a discerning, judgemental smile, and a loaded comment; ‘how strange’, ‘Is that wise?’ and ‘YOU don’t need to go on a diet’. As soon as the word ‘medical’ is introduced, people either look guilty, or surprised, and I feel a little less judged. But, why? Even if I were on a self-imposed diet, would that really be such a bad thing?

I have been on the low FODMAP diet under medical supervision for nearly four months now, in order to find out what foods might be contributing towards some on-going stomach problems. For eight weeks I had to totally cut out innumerable ‘fermentable’ foods from my diet such as wheat, garlic, onion, beans, honey – the list goes on. Since then I have been ‘testing’ these foods, to see which ones do or don’t provoke a reaction. It has been extremely challenging and boring, but it’s something I am willing to do if it stops me from looking like a pregnant lady after every meal. However, despite the fact that I have been told to do this by medical professionals, and it is entirely necessary, I still feel embarrassed and ashamed whenever I mention it to people – especially in restaurants. I think it stems from a very British fear of being a nuisance and causing a scene.

Some restaurants refuse to serve gluten-containing ingredients with an air of defiance, as though people who can’t eat gluten are trying to make a fuss. The words ‘gluten free’ are often met with a subtle roll of the eyes, and the hashtag ‘girlswithgluten’ has become common on social media – I wish I could be one of those
fun-lovin’ gals with their half-eaten doughnuts, but I would be a lot less fun in the aftermath, bleating about my stomach pains and rolling around with a swollen belly looking like Jabba the Hut.

It’s common to hear of vegans or vegetarians coming under fire for their eating habits, and are met with questions about whether they are getting enough protein, enough Vitamin B12, or Iron. But the question is, are these criticisers getting enough Vitamin A, C or E from fruit and veg in their high protein diets? With any dietary choice, people often aren’t getting enough of some kind of nutrient. My housemate was saying that she’s often expected to give a lengthy explanation of why she chooses to be a vegetarian, which is something that isn’t usually required of those who eat ‘normally’. I know of some veggies who just don’t like the idea or the taste of meat, and others who avoid it for ethical or humane reasons. Veganism and plant-based diets have seen a growth in popularity over the last few years, which is great for the environment as meat production causes a huge amount of pollution. However, vegans and vegetarians arguably require large quantities of fruits, vegetables and grains – and do they always choose seasonal, local produce? Fair-trade? Organic? Aren’t soy products supposed to be overly processed? Ethical questions can also be asked of meat eaters – are they choosing grass-fed, organic and free range? Whatever someone’s eating habits are, there’s always something to criticise.

There is a huge stigma around dieting for weight loss, especially if someone appears to be a healthy weight to begin with. When my mum told her friends that I was doing the Slimming World diet with her when I was sixteen, you would have thought she was actively encouraging me to develop an eating disorder from the way they reacted. Whilst I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the diet now for various reasons, it was a good starting point to learn how much food a person really needs.

A girl I was speaking to recently said that often when she hears of someone deciding to eat more healthily, they are warned not to ‘take it too far’. I have had this warning myself when describing how I’m trying eat well and cook with whole, unprocessed food products. As my brother pointed out, eating disorders are a serious mental illness, not a lifestyle choice that someone can decide to develop or avoid. Wanting to eat well, lose weight, or even being underweight, are all very different to having a severe mental illness.

A suggestion was made to me that when some people hear of another person’s diet they can feel undermined and inadequate for not following the same rules. It’s true those who enjoy eating ‘healthily’ can sometimes adopt a ‘holier than thou’, superior attitude, which doesn’t help the situation – no one wants a dirty look when they are tucking into some well-deserved cheesy chips after a night pon de floor. In an ideal world everyone would be more open-minded about the concept of choice. For those who see ‘healthy’ food as an alien concept, show some curiosity and find out what you’re missing, and those whose bodies are their temples, remember balance is key, and wine and chocolate have antioxidants in them.

It seems to me that the most important thing is that you are eating in a way that doesn’t mean you are suffering from something – whether it is a huge nutrient deficiency, stomach troubles or any issues caused by being enormously under or over weight. Apart from that, whatever diet a person chooses should just make them feel strong and happy. It’s time to drop the judgement, open your minds, and eat your greens.

Patsy O’Neill

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