Thoughts on “Diet Cults”

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I’m about to finish Matt Fitzgerald’s Diet Cults and I’m enjoying it a lot. He discusses the extent to which we identify ourselves by how we eat. Many of us proudly and loudly claim the label of Paleo, Vegan, Raw Food, High-Protein, Low-carb and similar type things. Food gurus try to convince us that there is as Fitzgerald calls it The One True Way to eat, a way that guarantees long life and good health. The various diet gurus tell us that the One True Way exists, but science tells us something different.

(I’ve noticed that there aren’t many other products or practices that incite such near-religious devotion. We don’t identify ourselves by the color of our car, the material our shoes are made out of or what type of carpet we have in our house. Dietary habits however are a major part of our identity. Fitzgerald goes into some history and possible reasons why.)

Mainly what we learn is that humans seem to be very flexible in our ability to not just live but thrive on all sorts of different eating patterns. Diet cults however tend to rigidly forbid various foods (grains, gluten, dairy, animal flesh, alcohol, even cooked foods are a few examples) with the threat that you will surely fall ill and possibly die from any number of ugly conditions.

Here are a few other interesting points I’ve gotten from the book:

  • Motivation (different from willpower) is far more predictive of long-term weight loss than any type of diet or eating pattern. Here’s the study from the National Weight Control Registry.
  • Fitzgerald profiles various individuals who have lost weight and improved or maintained their health on all sorts of diets: Paleo, raw food, Weight Watchers, high-protein are a few examples. He even discusses researchers who maintained very good health while eating nothing but white potatoes for a month! The point? There doesn’t seem to be any One True Way to eat.
  • He discusses chocolate, wine and coffee, three things that are often demonized and forbidden in various diets.  (Our paleo ancestors definitely didn’t even have them.) Yet there is evidence that they can confer good health on us when consumed in reasonable amounts. I like that he brings up the joy and pleasure we often have when consuming them. Spiritual health is something to consider alongside the strictly “physical” health components of our eating habits.
  • He provides a very interesting discussion on autoimmune issues, GI tract issues, gluten (and the fear of gluten), trauma and stress.  Specifically what I found most interesting were the studies on trauma, stress and autoimmune diseases. (Celiac disease is one of many autoimmune diseases.) A study from King’s College London “concluded that more than one in ten cases of low-grade systemic inflammation in adults may be attributable to childhood trauma. And there’s more. A study by the Centers of Disease Control found this:

“Four years later, Shanta Dube and her colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control went a step further. They gathered information about “adverse childhood experiences” from more than 15,000 adults. The categories of adverse childhood experiences were physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; witnessing domestic violence; and growing up with household substance abuse, mental illness, parental divorce, and/or an incarcerated household member. These data were used to create cumulative childhood stress scores for each subject. Dube and her colleagues then collected information from the subjects on hospitalizations for twenty-one selected autoimmune diseases in three categories. When the researchers crunched the numbers, they discovered that subjects were between 70 and 100 percent more likely to have developed an autoimmune disease than were subjects who had suffered no adverse childhood experiences.

  • The point? Food isn’t the only cause for our illnesses. Our emotions and the stress of modern living seems to have a very powerful influence on whether or not we’re “sick.” Thus, going on some sort of absolutist diet may have no effect whatsoever on such things.

So there are a few thoughts. Fitzgerald doesn’t give us license to eat all the garbage that we want but rather he illustrates that we can very comfortably attain excellent health through a wide variety of foods. (In my view, giving a damn at all about what you eat is probably the vast majority of what will get you where you want to be. Thinking about your food is a great starting place.) If you’re confused about all the mixed nutritional messages around you and some of the wild claims made by diet gurus then Diet Cults may deliver much welcome information.

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