I recently ran across an interesting article by Matt Fitzgerald. An avid runner and nutrition enthusiast, Matt has written several books on the subject of fitness, running and peak performance, among other topics. In this particular article, he describes the cult-like attributes of restrictive food movements which are also described in his book “Diet Cults: The Surprising Fallacy at the Core of Nutrition Fads and a Guide to Healthy Eating for the Rest of US.”
The article struck a chord with me. Over the past few months I’ve participated in a few online groups for low-carb eating and I’ve come to appreciate the knowledge, support and camaraderie offered by the groups. Overall, I think keeping simple carbohydrates and sugars to a minimum is a healthy way to eat and there is much evidence to back up the many health claims made by low-carb proponents. Neverthless, I’ve often experienced a subtle undertone within these support groups – one that doesn’t sit well with me. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but when I heard the term “diet cult,” I intuitively knew what the phrase meant and sensed what I was about to read in Matt’s article was going to describe the dark side of some of today’s most popular “diet revolutions” and “food movements.”
The turning point for me came when I wrote a seemingly innocuous post in a low-carb group which read, “Will eating three Triscuit crackers get me kicked out of the group?” It was meant to be a joke and most of those who commented took it as such. However, one of the admins for the group didn’t find it amusing.
To some, grain-eaters are right up there with career criminals and my “flaunting an off-plan food,” in their words, was an affront to the low-carb lifestyle and to those who had dutifully and completely eliminated grains and sugar from their diet.
I took the reprimand in stride. But, despite letting the exchange blow over, I realized in that moment that there was little room within such groups for any way of eating that isn’t supported by such books as Wheat Belly, Grain Brain, The Primal Blueprint, Keto Clarity, or Atkins for Life – although none of these are without valid criticisms and scientific flaws.
What’s more, there is an undertone of judgment in not walking the line by following such plans to the letter. Matt explains this phenomenon when he states, “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.” In essence, the very people criticising the dogma of low-fat dieting, have themselves become dogmatic in their approach to nutrition.
Although I don’t consider the entire low-carb high fat, paleo, or ketogenic community a cult, it’s clear that such movements tend to have cult-like followers. Food is a part of every aspect of culture, including religion; therefore it doesn’t take much for members of food movements to begin separating people into believers and non-believers and to judge people accordingly.
Matt lists the following five signs of a diet cult:
- It has a name
- Its advocates claim it is the “best” diet
- Its followers are emotionally attached to it
- It demonizes particular foods and/or nutrients
- It uses fear to recruit new converts
Beyond the more obvious consequences of the components of diet cults exists the self-imposed guilt and shame of followers who find themselves unable to maintain the strict criteria required by such diets. Not long ago a woman in one of my low-carb groups shamefully confessed to succumbing to eating a handful of grapes while packing her child’s lunch. Despite the nutritional value of fruits, higher-carb vegetables and, yes, even whole grains – such foods are often demonized and along with that come feelings of failure and frustration.
Luckily, Matt offers an alternative to diet cult brainwashing – a simple way to eat that doesn’t eliminate any food group and prioritizes healthy foods.
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.
Although I’m still involved in a few online groups and I continue to benefit from the wealth of knowledge of its members, I’ve become more aware of the prevalence of cult-like thinking among such groups and occasionally even in my own thinking. Like any cult, the indoctrination takes time to overcome, and I still feel a little guilty eating the blasphemous combination of homemade whole wheat bread and organic grass-fed butter.
In the end, we have to accept the fact that no doctor, no best-selling book and no food movement can lay out a plan that enables one to bypass the personal responsibility of learning what works best for him or her. The most important study we should reference as we take full control of our health is always our own “study of one.”