5 signs your diet is your religion

church graphic from Creative Commons

Many of us have had this annoying experience. You meet a friend for lunch, or dine with family, and you’re barraged with a non-stop lecture about the person’s latest diet.  You get all the unwelcome details about food restrictions, along with perhaps a critique of what you might be eating at that very moment.  You’re guilty of transgressions against Diet Purity.  You’re condemned to a life of illness/excess weight/bad skin/bad hair/fatigue/dire diseases/etc.  Sounds like a religion?  Yes.

Anyone who has endured diatribes on dietary perfectionism can’t help but notice the similarities to dogmatic religious ideas.  Not that religion doesn’t have its place in human society.  But some people have replaced traditional religion with a quest for dietary nirvana.  Whether Paleo, organic, gluten-free, low carb or vegan, there are people who take it to the extreme, at which point the diet can take over their life.

Of course, if you’re not hurting anyone by your choices, so what.  You might be limiting yourself, whether by limiting food choices or enjoyment of eating or social ties.  That’s your business.  But if you’re concerned or curious, or if you know someone like this, here are some signs that food choices and eating have turned into a religion-like belief system:

  1. You are convinced your diet will result in a state of physical perfection/enlightenment/disease-free eternal life.
  2. If you stray from your diet restrictions, you’ll quickly experience bad repercussions.
  3. You preach about your diet incessantly to everyone else, trying to convert them.
  4. You demand that other people accommodate your multiple diet restrictions.
  5. You prefer to associate with groups of like-dieting people, whether in person or online.  To the point where you start to feel like the world is divided into your chosen/enlightened group, and everyone else.  And everyone else is:
    1. wrong
    2. misguided
    3. doomed (to poor health, short life, excess weight, etc)

If you’ve ever been subjected to dietary haranguing from someone determined to convert you to their Perfect Diet, you probably recognize all these signs.  What can you do?  Hope it will pass eventually?  Drift away from a friend or family member?  Not invite them to social events that involve food?  Sometimes it’s hard for people in small judgmental peer groups to avoid getting sucked in to food restrictions.

The Paleo Diet is a perfect example of the religio-diet phenomenon.  I came across this essay about the myth of the so-called “Paleo Diet”, written by Peter Ungar, paleoanthropologist and a professor at the University of Arkansas.  You know, a person who actually is an expert on what early humans ate, unlike the Paleo preachers, whose “expertise” comes from fad diet websites.  Among his observations:

  • Paleolithic people depended a widely varied diet based on where they lived, seasons, climate patterns and what was available.  They did not just gorge on slabs of meat, with a side of leafy greens.
  • Paleo advocates preach that (impure, poisonous, sinful) grains were never consumed by early humans, yet traces of cooked grains have been found trapped in the tartar deposits of 40,000 year old Neandertal teeth.
  • There is no such thing as an ancestral human diet.  Consider these disparate examples: natives of what is now Arctic Alaska ate nothing but high protein/high fat marine mammals and fish; the diet of a tribe in the Central African savannah was 70% sweet melons and starchy roots.  Yet both groups managed to survive.
  • Diet flexibility is a key to survival and evolution of humans over eons.  Rigid inflexibility was likely to result in quick extinction.

But just try pointing any of this out to a true believer in Paleo.  You’ll get precisely nowhere.  They aren’t interested in expertise or facts or evidence.  They just believe; that’s enough.

Here’s another example.   A self-styled ‘nutritionist’ sent out an email newsletter to followers last week, headlined “Happy Passover, Easter and Spring”, followed by a long rant about foods to avoid because they cause inflammation.  How happy is that?  This person has her small group of true believers, and emails like this serve to reinforce beliefs and group belonging.  For the record, there is no evidence that any particular foods “cause” inflammation or prevent inflammation.  While the whole subject is very popular, there’s precious little hard evidence on how diet and inflammation interact.  But no matter, it’s a system of true belief.  People who write emails like this to their followers can make up lists with the usual food suspects targeted for avoidance: sugar, dairy, soy, gluten, potatoes, etc.  It’s Easter!  What no jelly beans or chocolate bunnies?  This list prohibited “corn-fed animals”, wow pretty specific there!  I wasn’t actually sure what was left to eat other than leafy greens.

The Diet-As-Religion mindset is the bane of registered dietitian nutritionists everywhere.  Some of us spend time trying to refute these beliefs with actual evidence, such as with Professor Ungar’s knowledge of early human diets.   I don’t bother anymore, since it’s their enjoyment of life that’s impacted, not mine, as long as I can avoid listening to them.  So if you’re dealing with someone like that, I’d suggest avoidance for the duration, or cover your ears and yell “La La La La La La La!!”.  Professor Ungar has one final observation:

“The basic idea is that our ever-changing world winnowed out the pickier eaters among us.”

So just winnow them out of your circle of friends and acquaintances, move on and enjoy food.

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