Ideas

Ideas | Maria Devlin McNair

Is your diet a cult?

Food has always played an important role in religion. But diets can operate like religions of their own.
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It sounds like the promise of a religious prophet pointing the way to salvation: “This will change your life.”

In fact, it’s the promise of Whole30, a 30-day diet program that emphasizes unprocessed foods like fish, fruits, and vegetables and eliminates sugar, grains, and dairy. It’s enormously popular. There are over 3.5 million posts about it on Instagram. A companion book is on Amazon’s bestseller list. According to Whole30 website, which receives 2 million visitors each month, participants have experienced results that “can only be described as miracles.”

This program, and others like it, raise a question: In America today, are diets and religion really so far apart?

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From ritual offerings to dietary laws to prescribed fasts, food has always played an important role in religion. In recent decades, however, diets have become religions of their own. They create community, set standards of moral value, and even promise salvation.

In his 2014 book “Diet Cults,” Matt Fitzgerald identifies a cult diet as a “way of eating that is morally based, identity-forming, community-building, and viewed by its followers as superior to all other ways of eating.” It’s based less on sound science than on a desire for identity and meaning. Alan Levinovitz, a professor of religious studies and author of the 2015 book “The Gluten Lie,” explains that humans naturally seek “symbolic frameworks for understanding our place in the world.” Religion is one of those frameworks. But eating, an “intuitively symbolic” merging of your body with the world, can also become a framework for thinking about how to live your life in general. “Food is one of the number one ways people think about morality,” Levinovitz says.

Philosophers and theologians for millennia have tied food to moral values, identifying temperance as a virtue and gluttony as a sin. A turning point for food’s moral role in America, however, occurred during World War I. When the US government needed food supplies for troops and allies in Europe, they encouraged citizens to ration their consumption voluntarily through campaigns that equated self-denial with moral and civic virtue. Americans were urged, “Lay your double chin on the altar of liberty!” Under this new equation, the appearance of your body signified the state of your soul.

This mindset lasted beyond World War I. Today, an estimated 45 million to 100 million Americans are on diets, and the weight loss industry is worth as much as $60 billion. It isn’t all about health. After 9/11, the “war on obesity” aligned patriotic responsibility and diet, even likening the threat of obesity to terrorism. Christian diet programs cast losing weight as a way of living out Jesus’ precept, “If anyone desire to come after me, let him deny himself.” And thousands of diet campaigns, food advertisements, and online posts reinforce the message that there’s something sinful about appetite — especially in women. That message is as old as the biblical story of Adam and Eve.

Michelle Lelwica describes in her 2002 book “Starving for Salvation” how the figure of Eve, said to have brought about humanity’s fall by eating, continues to affect how women see themselves. Interviewees shared statements like “feelings of purity were much better than any fattening food,” “‘good’ means not to have too many calories,” and “I can’t help feeling it is immoral to be fat.”

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Isabel Foxen Duke, an emotional-eating expert and coach, sees firsthand the effects of this mentality. She works to help clients overcome their internalized belief that “through dieting, I will be saved, my life will be transformed.” What usually happens is that dieters fail to achieve the “thin ideal” and consequently suffer “shame coupled with fear,” Duke says. “They feel awful about themselves and feel . . . I’m unlovable, I’m unworthy.”

If what you eat provokes shame at who you are, you’re not alone. Negative thoughts and behaviors around food, a symptom of disordered eating, affect 75 percent to 97 percent of American women. Duke’s tag line is that she helps women “stop feeling crazy around food” because that’s exactly what a cult diet does: drive you crazy. Many dieters are “not going out to dinner with their friends, they’re not able to focus at work, they’re not able to focus or be present in relationships because thoughts of food are consuming [their] brain,” Duke says. “You’re obsessing about food all the time. . . you are sacrificing quite a bit of your sanity.”

If you’re relying on your diet to change your life, it may just end up consuming it.

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Maria Devlin McNair, a St. Louis-based writer and recent Harvard PhD, is a producer of the podcast Ministry of Ideas, available on iTunes, Google Play, and ministryofideas.org.