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Your Diet is NOT a Lifestyle

Your Diet is NOT a Lifestyle
Angelo Coppola

We’ve all heard the lifestyle spiel right?

There’s healthy lifestyle, active lifestyle, sedentary lifestyle…traditional, urban, low-carb, Paleo, vegetarian, Vegan — and that’s not even scratching the surface. There’s a lifestyle for everything.

I know I’ve used these phrases in the past myself, but I’m getting a little tired of the word lifestyle.

Why? Because it leads to sloppy thinking, it leaves out far more than it tells us, and it is part of a marketing game that we don’t have to play in our own heads.

“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” — Mae West

We are trained to think of our lives as lifestyles.

Lifestyles are worthless to people, but they are valuable to businesses.

Lifestyles are sold to you for free. It doesn’t cost you anything to decide you live, for example, an active lifestyle. But, once you buy into a lifestyle, you also become part of a demographic. And businesses, especially large businesses, are exceptionally good at dealing with demographics instead of individuals, instead of you. Lifestyles provide more benefit to businesses than they do to individual human beings.

I’m not saying that is good or bad — just what is. Sure, it’s easy to think that labeling yourself with a lifestyle name is an easy way for you to communicate who you are to other people. But is it really?

“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” ― Oscar Wilde

Does it make sense to say that indigenous tribe members in the Amazon live a Paleo lifestyle?

Do Inuits live a low-carb lifestyle?

Do Kitavans live a low-fat lifestyle?

Those are ridiculous labels for them. And they’re ridiculous labels for us, too. It’s a lot like saying trees live a wooden lifestyle.

When we think of ourselves as living this or that lifestyle, we are fooling ourselves to a certain degree. First of all, if your dominant lifestyle is one based on diet, have you not greatly limited the description of yourself?

But, more importantly, there is no such thing as a lifestyle. You are the sum total of all of your actions, thoughts, decisions, likes, dislikes, triumphs, defeats, aspirations, regrets, and everything else that you can squeeze in between the maternity ward and the crematorium.

“All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Think more about life and less about style.

I don’t want my gravestone to say:

He lived a paleo lifestyle.

God, no!

My Paleo diet, my modes of activity, and my other health decisions are all for the purpose of living my life to its fullest. Not so that I can belong to a diet club. Your health is what helps you to live, you don’t live to help your health. That’s completely backwards and misses the point.

If you haven’t already, it’s time to stop thinking about your lifestyle and start thinking about your life.

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.” — Henry David Thoreau

Come up here where it is safe and dry.

Perhaps the only thing that is more anti-productive than thinking of ourselves as living this or that lifestyle is trying to convince others that they should live this or that lifestyle. Influencing each other by our own examples is one thing. But, it can be easy to take things too far.

In closing, please enjoy this wonderful Tanzanian proverb. My daughter, Ayla and I laughed a hearty belly laugh together when I once told her, “Come up here, where it’s safe and dry…said the monkey to the fish.” I’ll never forget the look on her face when the light bulb went off and the laughter started…first silently and then loudly and genuinely, as only a child can manage.

The rainy season that year had been the strongest ever and the river had broken its banks. There were floods everywhere and the animals were all running up into the hills. The floods came so fast that many drowned except the lucky monkeys who used their proverbial agility to climb up into the treetops. They looked down on the surface of the water where the fish were swimming and gracefully jumping out of the water as if they were the only ones enjoying the devastating flood.

One of the monkeys saw the fish and shouted to his companion: “Look down, my friend, look at those poor creatures. They are going to drown. Do you see how they struggle in the water?” “Yes,” said the other monkey. “What a pity! Probably they were late in escaping to the hills because they seem to have no legs. How can we save them?” “I think we must do something. Let’s go close to the edge of the flood where the water is not deep enough to cover us, and we can help them to get out.”

So the monkeys did just that. They started catching the fish, but not without difficulty. One by one, they brought them out of the water and put them carefully on the dry land. After a short time there was a pile of fish lying on the grass motionless. One of the monkeys said, “Do you see? They were tired, but now they are just sleeping and resting. Had it not been for us, my friend, all these poor people without legs would have drowned.”

The other monkey said: “They were trying to escape from us because they could not understand our good intentions. But when they wake up they will be very grateful because we have brought them salvation.”


“Open your eyes, look within. Are you satisfied with the life you’re living?” — Bob Marley

Humans are not broken, by default.

What are your thoughts? Does thinking of diet as lifestyle do more good than harm or vice versa? Is the whole lifestyle thing getting tired and ineffective now that everything is a lifestyle?

  • I understand your position. For me, the benefit of the term lifestyle is that it is so broad. While saying “paleo lifestyle” might not be meaningless, it is certainly inaccurate. To say one has a lifestyle is like saying one is living. It’s more about the intonation though.

    Typically when someone says “X becomes a lifestyle,” it means that you don’t simply change your behavior for an hour or two a day. X instead is something that shapes your outlook on life… the mindset or philosophy with which you face all future situations.

    The term lifestyle can’t be all bad. I do share your trepidation about anyone in business or marketing playing with the words. Luckily, I think that a person who does have such a mindset–someone who actually does live by a meticulously shaped philosophy–that they have made their own cannot be disturbed by any attempts at manipulation.

    I agree: Your diet is not a lifestyle. I do believe that if you pressed someone following a “paleo lifestyle” to explain their personal understanding of the phrase, they would paint a picture far beyond diet alone. You’d probably also find a point where their actual lifestyle deviates from their understanding of a “paleo lifestyle.”

    Also, great proverb!

    • Alec, I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said here. But at this point, who doesn’t realize that in order optimize health you can’t just eat salads for 2 weeks and then go back to Cheetos? 🙂

      “the mindset or philosophy with which you face all future situations”

      I’m very disappointed that I didn’t touch on that more directly in the article. There are pros and cons to this. The X Lifestyle label can serve to lock a person into a certain position, because it does not promote freedom of thought…it promotes the lifestyle.

      So, someone who describes himself as living a “healthy lifestyle,” by which they mean low-fat and elliptical machines…is going to have a hard time even being open to a Paleo approach.

      I think we’re on the same page…I’m just a little more tired of the term (not good or bad…just a word). And, I see it being used as a manipulative marketing / tribal thing frequently.

  • This is an excellent reminder of how insidious marketing has become in influencing how we view ourselves! Also I love when you reference your parable of the monkey and the fish 😉

  • Solid thoughts Angelo, I agree that the idea of lifestyle is little more than a marketing tool. I’ve spent the last several months thinking about how to better use the consumer system instead of being used by it, and I think this might be a good step. Stop telling yourself you belong in one subset, and then you will be less likely to be pinned down by advertising. At that point you may be able to make more clear headed decisions about what you buy and how you present yourself. Thanks for the great article!

    • Interesting topic to be mulling over. Feel free to share!

      I think the better we can see the system, the better we can use it. For example, I won’t restrict myself from using the word lifestyle…but not I just think of it a little differently.

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  • I have no idea if this is true but I have the feeling that it goes beyond modern “lifestyles”. I suspect humans have always (or at least, for a long time) had the need to feel that they belong to a particular group. Perhaps the labelling system was more focused on religion, etc. in the past, now it’s lifestyle. I guess what you’re trying to say is not that lifestyles are bad per se, but that getting attached to them is the problem. If so, this is another great Buddhist insight 😉

    • Gaby, that’s a great way of putting it. If one isn’t overly attached to a lifestyle label, s/he can still move around and think freely: word-label on end of the spectrum versus other- and self-identification at the other.

  • Sara .

    I EAT according to a paleo framework, but that doesn’t mean I “live paleo”. To me, a “paleo lifestyle” means living the way that our paleo ancestors lived, complete with the absence of internet and toilet paper. No thanks.

    We spend so much effort trying to explain that the paleo diet is NOT a re-enactment of our ancestors’ lives (see: Debunking a Paleo Diet Strawman). To go on and say, “But I live a paleo lifestyle” just helps perpetuate the paleo diet myths that were presented in that TED talk. Gah!

    Great post!

  • Ryan Sampsell

    I feel the awareness promoted in your article has a lot to do with the dangers of labeling, and is applicable to so many aspects of our lives. One aspect that I have noticed more than others is politics. We are conditioned, just like with our diet, to label ourselves and fall into one specific identity. So many of our political problems are directly related to people picking their political label or lifestyle and then never thinking about each individual issue critically. Our politicians thrive off of this conditioning, because it guarantees that the status quo continues. Next time you find yourself in a political conversation, try to work through the entire thing without using labels like liberal or
    conservative, it is amazingly difficult, and quickly shows how we very rapidly break things down into “A or B”, while ignoring any other options or ideas. By no means trying to
    spark a political debate, just wanted to point out the relativity of this theme. Thanks for another well written post.

    • I would say this is absolutely the case. And there are some variants:

      1) sometimes the same thing is given two different labels, just to make it seem like there is an option. In some elections, for example, we are clearly choosing between Coke & Pepsi (to borrow George Carlin’s metaphor).

      2) in other cases, we are presented with “both sides” of the issue…as if there are only two sides. Or that the two sides being presented are diametrically opposed. Usually, dems and reps are only a few billion dollars apart on any given issue. Enough for me to have a preference, but also essentially the same beast.

    • Matt

      It’s labeling in general. Take religion (i know it’s a touchy topic) for example. Even the label ‘GOD’ carries weight. Throughout history, there have been more wars started and deaths committed in the name of religion than anything else. What if you substitute the label ‘God/Allah/Buddha’ with ‘Godess’, ‘Love’, ‘Energy’…. what if you just take the label away alltogether?

  • I’ve been annoyed with the term “lifestyle” for years, since some people are fond of using the phrase “gay lifestyle” in ways that aren’t very kind. I’ve gotten to the point where, for a good laugh, I’ll imagine what it is they must be thinking my life is like. It’s bound to be filled with way more moments of bursting into musical numbers and throwing rainbow colored confetti in the air than in actuality.

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