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What Should the Word Diet Really Mean?


It’s heating up and summer is finally here. That means warmer weather clothes are finally coming out of the closet after a long winter. For many of us, long winters mean weight gain and the search for the perfect diet to help us trim those unwanted pounds and feel comfortable in our swim suits.

The diet industry makes millions of dollars hoping you will try to lose weight this summer.  Diets can mean different things to different people. Your “diet” is the habitual nourishment that you provide for yourself on a daily basis. In the weight loss world, “diet” can mean a prescribed and restrictive eating pattern.

When are diets appropriate?

Diets, (or meal plans as they refer to them at Tufts Medical Center’s Weight & Wellness Center,) provide helpful guidelines on what types of foods to eat and the appropriate portions. They are helpful when you need more guidance on how to put foods together in a way that is satisfying and allows for a lower calorie intake to support weight loss.

Meal plans can also provide information on the frequency of eating. According to Tufts Medical Center, many people do not eat nearly enough to manage hunger, which leads to overeating. By providing a meal plan, it’s easy to show how often it is appropriate to eat and the amount required at each meal to meet goals.

When are diets dangerous?

Diets are dangerous when they push us to eat in a way that limits access to vital nutrients. Some diets will eliminate whole food groups (such as carbohydrates or fat) in order to lose weight. This can lead to deficiencies and malnutrition. Further, going on a diet infers that you will someday go off the diet. This can lead to overeating foods that were previously eliminated and consequently, rapid weight regain.

What is the optimal diet for weight loss?

The optimal diet for weight loss provides a balance of essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals while also keeping calories slightly below daily caloric needs. It should include these components:

  • Fruits and Vegetables: Fruits and vegetables are essential because they provide vitamins and minerals to support every reaction in our body. The skins and flesh of fruits and vegetables provide fiber that is filling in our stomach, while providing very little calories compared to other foods. Fruits and vegetables also provide a lot of bulk, which gives us the feeling that we’re consuming a large meal. This is especially helpful when trying to manage portions of more calorie dense foods.
    • High fiber fruits and vegetables:
      • Fruits: berries, apples, pears, oranges, peaches
      • Vegetables: kale, greens, spinach, zucchini, Brussels sprouts, cabbage
  • Adequate Protein: Protein is essential for fueling our muscles and maintaining our body tissues as weight is lost. It’s also very filling and satisfying when eaten as a component of a balanced meal. Each healthy person should consume 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
    • Lean protein sources:
      • Chicken/turkey breast, lean pork/beef, eggs and egg whites
      • Low fat dairy, Greek yogurt, low fat cheese, skim or 1% milk
      • Nuts, nut butters, beans, soybeans, tofu, tempeh
  • High Fiber Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are important in any diet. Carbohydrates provide glucose, the primary fuel for our brain. Choosing carbohydrates with more fiber will keep you fuller longer and prevent drastic fluctuations in blood glucose levels (which can lead to hunger and pre-diabetes).
    • Whole Grains:
      • 100% whole wheat bread, barley, oats, quinoa, brown rice, whole wheat spaghetti, fiber cereal, wheat bran.
  • Essential fatty acids: Fats have been vilified in the past, but they provide essential fatty acids and help to absorb fat soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, and K. Diets that incorporate heart healthy sources of fat from mono- and poly-unsaturated fats in moderate amounts can help to lose weight. Fat is also very satisfying and including a little fat at each meal can help to keep you full while trying to lose weight.
    • Heart Health Fats:
      • Olive and vegetable oils, nuts, avocado
  • Hydration: Each person should consume 64 fl oz of calorie-free, caffeine-free beverages each day.

Should you go on a diet to lose weight?

It all depends on your goals. If you need to cut down on your caloric intake and need help with how to do that, then a meal plan developed by a registered dietitian nutritionist can help. Dietitians are trained to take into consideration all of your health conditions and provide specific guidance on how to safely lose weight.

If you are working on breaking your “diet mentality” then going on another diet is probably not the best choice. Many dietitians, especially those trained in health coaching, can work with you to develop good eating patterns that can help you to lose weight while not being on a restrictive “diet.”  This type of plan focuses on listening to your body and learning intuitive ways to manage your hunger and your weight.

Melissa Page, MS, LD, RDN
Clinical Bariatric Dietitian
Weight and Wellness Center
Tufts Medical Center – Boston, MA