Calling for an End to Nutrition as Religion

US News

Q: "How can you tell if your friend is on a gluten-free diet?"

A: "They'll tell you."

And probably more than once. Same joke goes for paleo, low-carb, vegan and pretty much any organized dietary strategy that has a defining name and movement behind it.

[See: Top-Rated Diets Overall.]

What's strange is that, aside from politics, I can't think of any other area of life other than diet and nutrition, where people feel comfortable not only sharing their views but doing so with incredible conviction, passion and certainty. And yet, nutrition is anything but certain.

Sure, we know there are patterns of eating that help in minimizing the risk of various chronic diseases, but those patterns are far broader and less drilled down than most nutrition gurus and zealots would have you believe. And given the diversity of our species, I would be very surprised to learn, even were our knowledge far more specific than it is, that there would be a "one-size-fits-all" best.

[Read: The Path to Health: Willpower and Skill Power.]

Riskier than alienating friends with dietary proselytization is the risk dietary religions pose to their practitioners. That risk isn't one of health - in fact all of the aforementioned diets, when followed carefully, would likely improve a person's health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases - it's one of sustainability. Unfortunately, when it comes to the various nutrition religions, their commandments tend to be brutally enforced, both by individuals and by their fellow congregants.

As anyone who regularly reads nutrition blogs or Facebook pages knows, diet adherents tend to use their online platform to frown upon any and all dietary strategies beyond their house of worship. To question their program or guru's plans is akin to questioning their religious beliefs; and yet, unlike actual religious questioning (which would almost certainly lead to a thoughtful discussion), question dietary dogma online, and you can bet it will lead to a highly heated debate where anger and indignation can easily descend into name calling and personal attacks.

But even if you're not one to interact with nutrition nuts on the Internet, you may still be at risk; although you may not have a stranger's zealous scrutiny to watch out for, you've still got yourself. Dietary dogma, almost by definition, dictates blind faith and absolute loyalty, where breaking a dietary commandment is akin to committing a sin. Sin often enough and here comes the guilt, and feel guilt often enough, and you might well decide to kill your entire healthier-living, guilt-inducing effort.

[Read: A Shame-Free Food Lifestyle.]

Of the, literally, thousands of patients I've seen about their weights, virtually all of them have successfully lost weight with at least one diet or weight-loss program. Their regains often occurred consequent to their beliefs that, for instance, "lower" or "lowish" rather than truly "low" carb wouldn't work - where a few carb-based indulgences led them to feel sufficiently like failures, so that rather than simply try to find a healthy "lower"-carb medium, they opted to quit altogether.

Nutrition as religion demands perfection, yet perfection is an impossible goal. Remember, food is not simply fuel. Since the dawn of humankind, food has been used for comfort and celebration, and if your newly found dietary religion forbids foods you enjoy, my bet is you're not long for that diet.

[Read: There's No Such Thing as 'Perfect Eating.']

The easiest question to evaluate any dietary plan or religion is simply, "Could I happily live like this for the rest of my life?" where the most important word in that question is "happily." If the answer's "No," you've either got to get comfortable with adding in some sinning, or find another way to go.

Add in some sinning in the form of thoughtful, "worth-it," dietary imperfections, and suddenly new lifestyles may transform from the merely tolerable to the actually enjoyable. Enjoy your lifestyle, albeit imperfectly, and maybe you'll even stick with it.

Nutrition isn't religion. Eat the healthiest diet that you can enjoy, because if you're not enjoying it, it isn't going to last, and tolerable isn't good enough. Sin a little, on me.

[Read: 6 'Bad' Foods That Really Aren't.]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute--dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and you can follow him on Twitter. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book, The Diet Fix: Why Everything You've Been Taught About Dieting is Wrong and the 10-Day Plan to Fix It, will be published by Random House's Crown/Harmony in 2014.

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