Lifestyle v. Diet: Pick a Side

In this corner: It's the one you love. The one you obsess over. The superstar. The one you eagerly await every Monday, and the one that even when you quit, you always come back to. It's the one that's so seductive and promises so much. It's the one that makes you feel like you could be better than you are right now. This one is…DIET!

And in this corner: It's the one you know. The one you live. The one you understand and the one that understands you in ways nobody else ever could. This one may not be glamorous, but this one is real, is here, is now. This one is…LIFESTYLE!

Sure, having a faceoff between diet and lifestyle is a bit silly, but as a diet book writer, I can’t help coming up against this particular battle on an almost daily basis. Sometimes I'm asked to write a diet book, or a lifestyle book, or about a lifestyle that sounds more like a diet...and the list goes on.

It’s very confusing.

And yet, it’s not. Let’s break it down, because although there is some crossover, the bottom line is that diet and lifestyle are two different contenders, and to know which one is going to work for you, you have to know exactly what you are dealing with.

First, let’s consider DIET.


Technically, your diet is simply what you habitually eat. But we all know that’s not the way most people use the word. More often, a diet involves a temporary or long-term restriction of some kind, for weight loss or health or any other reason. And is there anything wrong with going on or being on a diet?

That depends. I’ve read a lot of books that say diets don’t work because eventually, you go off them, and then, you go back to your old ways. This is true in some cases, and constant weight fluctuations probably aren’t good for you. But it doesn’t always work this way.

For example, if you have heart disease or diabetes, your doctor may instruct you to go on a special diet, to help prevent a medical emergency. You might otherwise choose to whoop it up with bacon and cheese omelettes or doughnuts and hot cocoa, but your special diet may prohibit these foods. You might cheat sometimes, but most of the time, you stick to your diet…even forever, if it staves off disease.

The same goes for weight-loss diets. If you eat more than your body burns (and let's face it, that's easy to do when you've got tasty food always available, just waiting for you to have another helping) and you could stand to lose a few pounds, you may decide to go on a weight-loss diet.

People like to say diets don’t work, but they do work. Thousands of studies show they help people lose weight and regain health, and several studies have demonstrated that it doesn’t matter which weight loss diet you choose. Low-calorie, low-carb, low-fat, they all work for many people much of the time.

In a big two-year study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, hundreds of overweight dieters on four different diets lost an average of 13 pounds over six months, no matter which diet they were on. After two years, the study subjects kept off an average of 9 pounds and lost one to three inches in the waist. They had improvements in heart-disease risk factors including increases in good HDL cholesterol and decreases in bad LDL cholesterol and triglycerides at six-month and two-year markers. There was no difference between diets in reported levels of hunger, fullness, or satisfaction. All the diets in the program contained what the researchers called “reasonable ranges” of fat, protein, and carbs, so none of the diets were extreme.

I’ve seen those studies that say almost everyone gains the weight back, but I know plenty of people who haven’t. A lot of the studies that put dieters at risk for weight re-gain involved extreme low-calorie diets that messed with hormones and metabolism; in other words, unhealthy diets.

But for reasonable diets that include enough nutrition and calories for normal functioning, yes, diets often work. However, any given diet might not work for you. The good news is that there are thousands to choose from, and they all work for some of the people some of the time. If you find one you like, and you can stick to it, you probably will lose weight. When you are done with the diet, it might cause changes to your future lifestyle. You might have reprogrammed yourself to live every day with new, healthier habits.

That brings us to LIFESTYLE.


Your lifestyle is how you live, including what you eat, how much you exercise, how you manage stress, and much more. It’s holistic, it’s comprehensive, it goes way beyond diet, and when you consider how influential it might be on what you eat, it’s very important.

For many people who want to lose weight or get healthier but don’t like the restrictions of a diet, lifestyle changes make a lot more sense. They are also good for people who can’t bear to go on another diet, who have bad associations with dieting, or who just can’t stick to a diet. If it’s just a lifestyle change, it may seem less threatening or restrictive.

However, there are some misconceptions about what that means. Is a lifestyle change forever?

Of course not. You might make a lifestyle change (eating less sugar, eating more vegetables), but that’s no guarantee you’ll stick with it. In a few months, or weeks, or even days, you might decide you aren’t so crazy about that particular change. Then you might go back to your afternoon caramel latte or your avoidance of leafy greens—back to your old lifestyle.

That’s too bad, health-wise, but it’s also reality. Calling it a lifestyle doesn’t guarantee it’s going to work any more than calling something a diet does. Nobody is out there enforcing either method. There are no diet police, and there are no lifestyle police, either. Besides, what is a diet but a systemized temporary lifestyle change?

So you see, the differences aren’t so obvious, or at least not as obvious as diet and lifestyle books might have you believe. But there is a difference, and here’s what it is:

One or the other is likely to work better for you.

You’re the judge

Don’t you hate it when an article implies it’s going to give you some secret answer to your most burning question, and then you get to the end and it says something like, “It’s all up to you”? I hate that too, but I’m still going to do it, because the real key to this contest is to know yourself and your tendencies.

Do you love rules and structure? Do you want someone to tell you exactly what to eat? Do you dislike meal planning? Do you think diets are fun and exciting? Do you love starting them, and then watching the number on the scale plummet? Then diets might be right for you. You might go on them one after the other. Dieting might become…yes…a lifestyle.

But if you don’t like rules, or someone dictating what you eat; if you don’t want to measure or weigh or count anything ever again; if, in fact, you know that when people impose structure on you, you are likely to rebel and eat even more, then making small changes to your lifestyle will probably work better for you and your weight-loss goals.

So go on a diet, as long as it’s a healthy one, or make lifestyle changes that you know are good for you. Do what works with your personality, your work life, and your personal life, and you’ll have the best chance of sticking with it.

So who wins the final round? Nobody’s getting knocked out in this match. It’s a draw, or, it’s your decision. Who wins, in your world? Diet? Lifestyle? Whichever you embrace, you have the opportunity to be healthier, feel better, and be less likely to ever have to hear a doctor telling you what to eat.