Do any of these sound familiar to you?
Many popular diets have cult-like features. This is no accident.
Food has always been more than mere sustenance for humans. It is also a source of social and moral identity. Since as far back as the Kosher dietary laws of the ancient Hebrews (and probably much earlier), human beings have formed group identities and derived a sense of moral superiority from eating by strict rules. This instinct has become so deeply ingrained in human nature that, according to research by Yale psychologist Karen Wyn, infants as young as three months old express disapproval of others who seem not to share their food preferences.
Ostensibly, most modern diets are all about health. But in fact they are just as much about group identity and moral judgment as were the diets of the past. If your diet has the following five characteristics, it is what I call a diet cult.
1. It Has A Name
Every diet cult has a name. Examples are the China Diet, the Mediterranean diet, and the “plant-based diet.”
But wait: Doesn’t every diet have a name? Nope. There are some healthy ways of eating that are nameless. For example, I’ve spent years analyzing the diets of elite endurance athletes. Very few of them belong to diet cults. The vast majority of these men and women have no name for their way of eating and yet they eat very healthfully. Elite endurance athletes are living proof that a person does not need to join any diet cult to become as healthy as a human being can be.
You can see some examples of how elite endurance athlete eat in my book, Racing Weight. At first glance these food diaries just look like normal American (or English, or whatever) diets. But upon closer inspection they reveal themselves to be very high-quality versions of culturally normal diets. The typical endurance athlete eats everything (no forbidden foods) but eats a lot more high-quality stuff (such as fruit) than low-quality stuff (such as candy).
I’ve coined the term “agnostic healthy eating” to refer to this normal-but-high-quality way of eating. Yes, that’s a name, but I never said that having a name in itself qualifies a diet as a diet cult. Keep reading.
2. Its Advocates Claim It Is The “Best” Diet
All of the diet cults claim to be healthier, better, or more effective than other diets. Each justifies these claims on scientific grounds. But nutrition scientists have not identified a “best” diet. In fact, they have clearly demonstrated that there is no such thing.
The position of the nutrition science mainstream was neatly summarized by Marion Nestle in the book What To Eat. She wrote, “The range of healthful nutrient intake is broad and foods from the earth, tree, or animal can be combined in a seemingly infinite number of ways to create diets that meet health goals.”
Why would the champions of the various diet cults claim their way of eating is superior to all others when the evidence plainly shows that each person can thrive equally on a variety of different diets? Keep reading.
3. Its Followers Are Emotionally Attached To It
If you’ve ever made a decision to follow a particular name-brand diet, you probably assume this decision was based on a rational belief that the diet would work. But that’s not the whole story. Women are much more likely than men to become vegetarians. Politically liberal men and women are more likely than conservatives to give up meat. Men are far more likely than women to adopt the Paleo Diet. CrossFitters are more likely than tennis players to go Paleo.
In short, people are attracted to diets largely on the basis of identity. Factors such as gender, age, geography, politics, profession, hobbies, group membership, and personality predispose individuals to resonate emotionally with the ethos of a given diet. Sometimes it’s as simple as who you’re friends with. If a bunch of your friends needlessly remove gluten from their diet, you’re likely to do the same.
Similarly, people remain committed to their diet not to much because the diet works as because they have become attached to the sense of identity the diet gives them and to the community that enfolds its membership. Most people who really commit to a diet get the results they seek. But they could get equal results from another diet. So results aren’t the real hook. The real hook is the nourishing sense that you are what you eat in a way that goes beyond the physical.
4. It Demonizes Particular Foods And/Or Nutrients
There have been forbidden foods in every culture throughout history. Surprisingly few of these taboos have had anything to do with health. Rather, their main function has been to define particular cultures as distinct from their neighbors. For example, drinking alcohol in moderation is one of the healthiest things a person can do, yet it is forbidden in the Muslim religion. Why? Because the taboo helps define Muslims as distinct from followers of other religions.
The practice of forbidding foods that are perfectly healthy continues to thrive today. The only difference is that advocates of modern diet cults claim that the healthy foods they forbid are actually unhealthy. For example, plant-based (or Vegan) diets forbid the consumption of fish on the grounds that eating fish causes heart disease when in fact eating fish drastically reduces the risk of heart disease (and slows brain aging).
All diet cults enforce nutritional “musts” that aren’t really musts for good health. Again, this is because improving health is only half of the true agenda of the diet cults.
5. It Uses Fear To Recruit New Converts
All diet cults work aggressively to impose their doctrine on outsiders. They do so primarily through fear—a powerful motivator for behavioral change. Champions of each diet cult want to believe that you are slowly killing yourself with your current diet and that the only way of eating that is not a prolonged method of suicide is their own.
The anti-sugar diet cult is a good example. Proponents of this dietary sect argue for total elimination of refined sugars from the diet on the grounds that sugar is “toxic” and “addictive” in any amount. We all know that refined sugar is unhealthy in excess, but if it were toxic and addictive by any sane definition then most of us would be dead many times over. Yet many intelligent people fall for such overheated rhetoric because fear has a way of paralyzing the reasoning faculties.
An Alternative To Brainwashing
As I suggested above, most of the cult diets are perfectly healthy—or at least they can be. What’s more, the dogmatism and sanctimoniousness of their champions serve a purpose, giving eaters comforting certainties to latch on to so that the hard work of avoiding the fast food drive-thru window day after day is just a bit easier.
Diet cults aren’t for everyone, though. Many folks are turned off by the arbitrariness of their rules and by the self-righteousness of their attitudes. If you are one of these folks, I encourage you to take a cue from elite endurance athletes and try agnostic healthy eating. It’s an easy game to play. There are 10 basic categories of food. Listed in descending order of overall quality, they are: vegetables; fruit; nuts, seeds, and healthy oils; high-quality meat and seafood; whole grains; dairy; refined grains; low-quality meat and seafood; sweets; and fried foods. Each week, try to eat each item on this list more often than any item following it. That’s it.
For more details, check out my book, Diet Cults: The Surprising Fallacy at the Core of Nutrition Fads and a Guide to Healthy Eating for the Rest of Us.
About The Author:
Matt Fitzgerald is the author of numerous books, including Racing Weight: How To Get Lean For Peak Performance (VeloPress, 2012). He is also a Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. To learn more about Matt visit www.mattfitzgerald.org.