Why “Diets Don’t Work” is a Myth: Understanding the True Meaning of the Word “Diet”

Raise your hand if you have heard this in the past few years: “Diets don’t work!” I bet yours is raised, at least in your mind. Especially if you’re over 50!

I’m tired of it, because like many other catch phrases, the term can mean something different to everyone.

Does it mean:

  • A strict diet cutting out an entire food group?
  • Counting calories?
  • Only eating steak and grapefruit?
  • Going vegan
  • Restricting calories until you reach the magic weight?

I could go on, and you probably have many examples of what your mind conjures up when you hear the word diet.

But the fact is, diet is just what you eat. You know that, I know that. So why do we attach such a sinister meaning to the word?

Hint: the word diet doesn’t have any meaning other than what your thoughts give to it.

The origin of the word itself is Greek, and it comes from the word diaita, meaning “way of living.” It more specifically referred to “a way of living as prescribed by a physician, which would include a food regimen and other daily habits.”

woman working on her diet plan

The Greek term diaita itself comes from the Latin diaitin, which meant โ€œto lead, govern, or arbitrate oneโ€™s life.โ€

As you can see from the root of the word, it’s come to represent the way you eat.

So, yeah, everyone is always on a diet of sorts.

Don’t Take “Diets Don’t Work” Literally

Now, when you think about this way, the term diets don’t work actually makes no sense. I don’t know about you, but my diet works to keep me alive and functioning, thank you very much!

It may be more or less healthful on any given day, but we do need to eat and drink to survive. So let’s dispense with the diets don’t work myth once and for all.

Let’s see if we can tease out a bit what folks mean when they tell us that diets don’t work.

As mentioned above, diet really means what you eat. Simple. But most people mean something like this: “a temporary restrictive program of eating in order to lose weight.”

heart-shaped plate with tiny amount of food wondering if diets work

Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. I, however, would counter that even with this definition, diets DO work. If the goal is to lose weight, you’ll probably do so with a highly restrictive program of eating.

If you can stick to it. Ay, there’s the rub!

So what we’re really saying is something like this…a temporary and highly restrictive program of eating will likely lead to weight loss.

BUT, if after this weight loss you go back to eating the same way you did that got you overweight, the weight will probably come back (all things being equal).

This is what we want to avoid. I mean, let’s get real. If you’re over 50, or over 60 like I am, you’ve probably been on dozens of diets, right?

I don’t know about you, but that ship sailed a while ago. Nope, I just don’t want to do the yo-yo thing anymore. Period.

The Problem With The Diets Don’t Work Camp

First the sorta good. If you think of diets don’t work in the restrictive temporary sense above, with a dash of permanently thrown in, then yes, this idea can help you move away from unsustainable diets.

But beyond that, they don’t have much to offer other than, eat healthy in moderation and exercise more. Yeah, we already know that.

If you want to lose weight and be fit, you may, and probably do need a bit more structure than this.

After all, if you had already figured it out, you wouldn’t be reading this. ๐Ÿ˜‰

So if you just try to wing it, you’ll likely become discouraged when the pressure gets too great, you’re rushed, or just plain don’t feel like exercising or fixing a healthy meal.

Then you’ll go off your plan, feel bad and put yourself down, eat to make yourself feel better and there you are again!

Come on, you need to get off that treadmill! The other kind is fine and I even kind of like it.

What To Focus On Instead

There’s no question that there is work involved. But this is work that will get you where you want to go, and off the merry-go-round, or hamster wheel of dieting, gaining, giving up, dieting….and on and on.

If you’ve read a few of my posts, you can probably guess I might say it has something to do with your mind. And you’d be correct!

You have to change the way you think. Because your thoughts determine your feelings which determine your actions which drive your results.

Getting clear with this and practicing new thoughts, along with learning sustainable ways of eating and exercise, is the key to continuing these behaviors for the rest of your life.

picture wheel showing aspects of mindful eating


Try to think more in terms of a process instead of a rigid goal of losing X number of pounds. Ditch the all-or-nothing approach and focus instead on steering yourself away from the strict diet mentality.

Here is some food for thought:

  • good enough is good enough
  • give yourself permission to enjoy all foods in moderation
  • food is neither good or bad
  • find the silver lining in all setbacks

Not only that, but this kind of work can change your life in many other ways. When you succeed in your goal of healthy living (an ongoing practice) you will feel the benefits in other areas, too.

You Have The Power To Change

You can change your relationship to food and exercise, and you can even change your beliefs about yourself.

I don’t care how old you are, or how set in your ways. It is possible. I was the most rigid thinker I knew and just believed I was a certain way and there was no changing it.

How can you possibly change your thoughts? I’m not a new age type person, into a bunch of crystals and incense (and hey, I’m not judging if you are, it’s totally okay!).

But I’ve changed the way I think about a lot of things–in my 60s.

So don’t tell me it won’t work for you.

You can let go of your past failures and focus on behaviors you can control. You can reach your fitness goals.

It will take time, but if you’re willing to put in the effort and be patient with yourself, you can do it!

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