"I saw few die of hunger; of eating, a hundred thousand." -Ben Franklin

Friday, February 18, 2011

Etymology of "Diet"

When we hear the word diet, we probably think of it to mean a way of eating that restricts certain food groups ("a low-carb diet"), or a term used by food businesses to make you think their products are healthy when, in reality, they're pumped with chemicals ("Diet Coke"). When we hear this word, we almost always associate it with food (or lack thereof).

However, diet comes from a Greek word meaning "lifestyle," which is a definition that doesn't mention food at all! While the Oxford English Dictionary considers this meaning for diet obsolete, it is still the first entry that appears!

The word diet bothers a lot of people in regards to Paleo/Primal eating. I read a blog a few days ago by someone who absolutely refuses to read Robb Wolf's The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet and Loren Cordain's The Paleo Diet because of this little four-letter word on the front cover, using the reasoning that diet means it's not a permanent thing. I can understand the objection to the word (but not the refusal to read those two amazing books), because every time I've gone on a diet, it was only temporary and I went right back to my old eating habits after I lost some weight.

When I first started thinking about my low-carb/real food diet as a lifestyle (before I knew that it was called Paleo/Primal), I became extremely objected to the word too-- about seven months into eating this way (at some point last September), I had my first real issue with diet. I had dinner with a friend who I hadn't seen since the spring, and he commented on my salad, even though the dining hall was having a pasta night. I responded with "I don't eat grains," and he asked, "What? Are you on the Atkins diet?" It was the first time I thought of my way of eating as a lifestyle, rather than a diet, and I told him so: "No. I just don't eat processed foods." I remember actually being offended that my friend referred to my eating habits as a diet!

Being a linguistics major (and just a bit of a nerd in general), I went back to my dorm and looked up the word diet in the OED (which provides the etymology of essentially every word in the English language) and was amazed at the definition in the first entry: "diet, n. 1. Course of life: way of living or thinking." What?! Diet hasn't always meant "food restriction"?!?! I learned that diet was borrowed into English via Old French (diete) via Latin (diæta) via the Greek word δίαιτα (diaita), meaning "mode of life" or "lifestyle."

Although the use of diet to mean "lifestyle" is obsolete today, this etymological information no longer makes me objected to the use of the word to describe eating Paleo/Primal. I'm still not crazy about the word diet because of its negative connotations, however-- I much prefer calling it a "lifestyle," or even the (slightly redundant) "Paleo/Primal Diet Lifestyle."

Whether it's a "diet" or a "lifestyle," eating Paleo/Primal/Caveman/Real Food is the way to go!

Quote of the Day:
"Every human being is the author of his own health or disease." -Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama)

(Doing an I.F., so no fun pictures today!)


  1. Excellent post. Both informative and entertaining. I can't believe I finally figured out what the word diet means after all these years.

  2. Great Post. Thank you for writing up something I was too lazy to type!

    This is basically why I've never been afraid of using the word diet, and have always felt it was a necessary work to use.

    What other single word would you use to convey the same message?

  3. Very nice post. I struggle with using the word "diet" and then with myself for getting so caught up in the semantics and my concern for what others will believe it means. (I do so love semantics, though.)

  4. Very good congratulate you and wish you more enthusiasm and progress
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  5. Primal lifestyle is becoming s so popular these days and more and more wellness lovers are adopting the primal diet plan. I really admire your writing skills. Keep posting informative posts.

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