The Cult of Nutrition

Nutrition plans, just like religious cults, commonly eschew science and reality.
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Nutrition plans, just like religious cults, commonly eschew science and reality.


Editor's Note:This post originally appeared onRealClearScience, a Pacific Standard partner site.

Listen closely. I'm going to tell you how you can change your life.

Chances are, we've all heard that one before. It's a salesman's pitch, meant to play off our latent insecurities while evoking hopeful wonderment. Despite the statement's banality, to many, it's an irresistible call. Even the skeptical can be enticed. After all, there's no harm in listening.... But if you turn away, you could miss out on something spectacular, transformational, or even revolutionary.

And when you listen, that's when you hear about a new dietary solution that could shake the nation from its heavy predicament, and help you get fitter and healthier than you've ever been before. This plan actually works!

Or, you might instead hear about faith, and how it's the only path to enlightenment and salvation.

In fact, the two are almost interchangeable. That's because nutrition is actually very similar to cult-like religion.

For starters, both cults and diets profess to have "answers" and impart benefits that will irrevocably change your life for the better. Veganism's pitch isn't much unlike Scientology's. Caveman Diet's isn't all that different from certain sects of Evangelical Baptism:

The Caveman Power Diet increases energy, the ability to burn fat, and gets you in touch with your natural instincts. It's not just a way to lose weight, it's a healthy approach to making your body indestructable [sic].

Indestructible? That's a rather other-worldly claim.

In the same way that cults produce zealots, nutrition produces fanatics. That's because personal experience frequently shapes the views of followers. A person who loses 100 pounds feasting on red meat and bacon can be as fervent and fiery about their beloved diet as a follower who just met a charismatic cult leader.

Personal experience is very powerful, for it can easily morph into passionate, firmly fixed belief. As nutrition writer Jack Challem pointedly stated at Psychology Today:

In anthropology, the term "belief system" is usually used to describe a religion. And when it comes to nutrition, many scientists and consumers are so wedded to their beliefs that they're not interested in adjusting their beliefs in response to new scientific findings.

But still, Challem writes, "They're just beliefs. And having millions of adherents or thousands of experts repeat the same mantras doesn't make these beliefs truer." In other words, nutrition plans, just like religious cults, commonly eschew science and reality.

There are literally thousands of scientific studies on nutrition, enough so that a pusher of any sort of diet could state their beliefs, cherry-pick data, and purport to be under the mantle of "science." With all the conflicting and poorly designed research out there, it's easy to find evidence to back any dietary assertion.

In the same manner, overly religious types, such as those who promote creation science, latch on to data that coincides with their beliefs and disregard everything else. Though their ideas are awash in woo, staunch creationists can present a very persuasive case.

But that is not proper science.

Science is about putting forth a hypothesis and then trying to disprove it, one insightful blogger reminds us. If you can't refute it yourself, you throw it to your peers to rip apart. If they can't invalidate the idea, well, you may just have something. "[T]he wackier areas of nutrition ... use the exact opposite technique," the blogger continues. "It is about coming up with an idea, looking for (or making up) evidence to support it, ignoring evidence that contradicts it, and reacting defensively to any who challenge your idea."

With no shortage of opinions and interest revolving around diet and nutrition, you might think that more would be conclusively known. Sadly, there isn't. Oh, there are a few things we can claim with some certainty, like that you shouldn't imbibesugary soft drinks in excess, or that eating a diet rich in organic foods isn't necessarily healthier. But on a host of other nutritional topics—such as low-carbohydrate diets, egg consumption, and saturated fat intake—more randomized controlled trials and more systematic reviews are sorely needed.

Until more quality evidence materializes, nutrition—like cult-like religion—will remain in the realm of belief, and the proselytizing will invariably continue.