'Diet' or 'eating plan'? How language is breaking your health goals

Jul 10, 2015 at 7:00 a.m. ET
Image: JGI/Jamie Grill/Blend Images/Getty Images

Dieting is a challenge, especially when you use the wrong words to describe it.

Let me clarify: Don't use the word "diet" at all. Just stop. It's self-defeating, and you're likely to abandon healthy eating altogether when you inevitably break it.

This concept was best explained to me in a financial seminar, when the instructor said to replace the word "budget" with "spending plan." It was like a light bulb went off in my head. Budgets — like diets — sound restricting, painful and made to be broken. A spending plan, however, sounds organizing and helpful.

How to re-frame your words for success

Surely, the same concept is at work when replacing our most painful and self-defeating fitness words with different language. Laura Williams, personal trainer and C.E.O. of Girls Gone Sporty, agrees. "People want to embrace health, nutrition and activity rather than exercise, diet and weight loss," she says. "In most cases they're two sides of the same coin, but the new terms provide a more positive connotation that doesn't bring back memories of tortuous middle school P.E. experiences."

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In psychology, replacing negative language with positive alternatives is called cognitive re-framing. And, guys, I'm here to tell you it works. Any time you use icky or depressing words when discussing a personal goal, you're setting yourself up for defeat before you even start working. Replace those words as though your goals depend on it. (They do.) 

Do this, don't do that

If you're like most people, you may not even know when you're using negative language. As a general rule of thumb, you need to toss any language that rejects your personal responsibility or clouds your thinking with negativity.

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For instance, Williams says that one of her favorite fitness re-frames is to replace the word "can't" with "don't." She explains, "When you say, 'I can't eat French fries,' you're taking on the role of a victim — as if the food choice is forced on you. When you re-frame it to say, 'I don't eat French fries,' you're taking responsibility for the choice and making it your own." Similarly, replace the phrase, "I can't lose 15 pounds," with "I don't lose 15 pounds," or "I haven't lost 15 pounds." By changing the words, you reject fatalism and put yourself back in a place of power.

Other suggestions

  • Change "diet" into "eating plan," or "nutrition plan."
  • Swap "exercise" for "activity."
  • Transform "weight loss" into "fitness."

You get the idea.