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4 Reasons People Get Trapped in Dietary Dogmas – Is Diet the New Religion?

At BiOptimizers, we are not religious about any particular diet. We believe any diet can work, and any diet without the right compliance strategies can backfire. Therefore, we say “nutritional strategies” instead of “diet,” and encourage people to adjust or move among nutritional strategies based on their bodies’ feedback.  We’re not free from the influences…

Are diet dogmas the new religion?

At BiOptimizers, we are not religious about any particular diet. We believe any diet can work, and any diet without the right compliance strategies can backfire. Therefore, we say “nutritional strategies” instead of “diet,” and encourage people to adjust or move among nutritional strategies based on their bodies’ feedback. 

We’re not free from the influences around us, either. For over a decade, Matt and Wade were constantly arguing about keto vs vegan. In this article, we cover 4 reasons why people become devotedly dogmatic about their favorite diets, sometimes to their detriment.

1) Diet gives them a new sense of belonging and discipline, like religion

Religion

Worldwide, people are becoming less religious and more are becoming agnostic. These people could be missing many things that religions provide a sense of belonging, a sense of morality, and rituals that make them happy. Religions also provide a coping mechanism, and sometimes distractions from their other real-world problems. 

Food, fasting, and feasting have always been important parts of religions. For example, Muslims use Ramadan fasting to get closer to God and become more selfless; Jews feast and fast on Yom Kippur. Many religions also have dietary restrictions, with certain foods or gluttony being considered impure, while others are considered more holy. To Jews, fasting is a way to repent for their sins. 

In The Gluten Lie, Alan Levinovitz, Associate Professor of Religion at James Madison University, draws many parallels between religions and online diet devotee groups. 

Being a diet devotee gives people a sense of belonging, as diet group meetups pop up in many major cities. Dieting also provides a means of control and a coping mechanism when there is uncertainty (like stocking up on toilet paper early in the pandemic). 

Like religion, sticking to a diet often involves self-control, sticking to a plan, and devotion. It gives people a sense of certainty. We even describe food and diet compliance with religious morality terms, e.g. cheat days, good food, bad food, confession, and redemption. Sticking to a diet or breaking the rules is ethically charged. 

This could be why people tend to question dietary recommendations less than they do with other things that affect their health. 

What’s worse? Health topics should be a science-based field rather than an expert-based field. But research, both in nutrition and in general, is messy. It involves reconciling conflicting pieces of data and taking into account many other factors in order to distill the right conclusion. 

By default, the human brain strongly dislikes uncertainty. Our brain likes easy categorization. However, nutrition research, especially clinical studies, is subject to numerous methodological flaws. Also, nutrition research is often corrupt or influenced by the food industry. Sensibly, we find it easier to gravitate towards experts instead of wading through all that information or even challenging the information in front of them. 

2) The us vs them mentality + confirmation bias create cults

Us vs Them

Some diets are so starkly different from the mainstream dietary advice that they create an “Us vs Them” mentality. Many diet devotees were suffering from mainstream dietary advice before trying the new diet that is working great for them. 

For example, perhaps you struggled with morbid obesity and diabetes from following the mainstream low-fat high-carb diet, but have now quickly put all of that behind after trying a ketogenic diet. It becomes easy for you to believe that the conventional paradigm is out to keep you sick and dependent on pharmaceuticals. It may also cause you to think that anyone who preaches high-carb diets is paid for by Big Pharma. This extreme thinking causes a cult mentality and a susceptibility to conspiracy theories.

Diet cults may not be only about health, but also sometimes exist for purely ethical reasons. For example, some vegans give up animal products for the environment. Some Paleo and Weston A. Price followers also believe in choosing grass-fed meat for environmental and ethical reasons. However, these people tend to just believe what they hear rather than critically thinking about it. 

3) The media and experts appear to echo each other

TV

In the Book Bad Science, British physician and science journalist Ben Goldacre brings up the problem that the field of journalism tends to work against science by being expert-based. Most journalists don’t have the training to appraise scientific evidence, so they often report on claims and findings by scientific experts, along with sensationalist headlines. This can create echo chambers of misunderstandings and false information, or often the information that may not apply to everyone. 

Publication and the media could be biased, either from their belief or by the omission of information. Media conglomerates have sponsors, which could be ones that have conflicts of interest against certain diets or health trends. 

Also, nutrition experts are in many ways similar to religious leaders. They have devotees who consume, share, and re-preach everything they say. The new form of diet or fitness regimen devotion is social shares and likes, and online influence. 

All of this doesn’t mean that diets don’t work. Every diet works for some people, helping them lose weight and curing their diseases. For example, there are online forums of people who put their autoimmune diseases into remission following an autoimmune Paleo-protocol diet. Groups of cancer patients congregate to discuss juicing or ketogenic diets. 

However, even when we talk about how these diets deliver miraculous healing results, none of them has 100% effectiveness. It’s typically people at one end of the bell curve who are the loudest advocates. Because the positive effects are life-changing, these people can quickly become lifelong diet devotees. 

Some of them become influencers, by starting blogs or social media accounts. They preach the philosophies of the diet they follow along with its health benefits. When you achieve personal success with such a diet, it is easy to (falsely) believe that the diet is good for everyone. 

Keep in mind, however, there are also people who just jump on the bandwagon without knowing whether the diet is right for them, just because they find it more credible when they keep hearing about it.

4) Social media belief bubbles and echo chambers

The religion-like nature of diets can keep you blindly believing that one diet is superior to all others. It is important to check your bias.

Does hearing from ten people that a green chair is orange make the chair orange?

Online, it is easy to just believe that the green chair is orange because you keep hearing the same thing over and over. 

Many people are unaware that social media algorithms tend to reinforce our beliefs, be they political or nutritional. Also, people tend to follow pages or blogs that fit in with their current dietary beliefs or practices. They are also subject to a sunk cost bias because they’ve been practicing it, bought into the idea, and sometimes bought books and tools for the diet. This can keep them believing that their diet is the best one.

People tend to fall into belief bubbles from selective exposure to content and other people’s beliefs, just because they don’t have exposure to alternative facts. Also, in groups where the alternative is actively discredited, labeled evil, or suppressed, it forms an “echo chamber.”

Belief bubbles and echo chambers can be harmful because they can cause people to stick to a diet that is not the best for their health or refuse to change when it is making them sick. Vegans can become nutrient deficient and need to re-introduce animal products. Keto eaters sometimes need carb refeeds to reset their hormones. Many Paleo eaters experience health benefits from bringing back some grains and legumes.

Echo chambers can make people crazy. For example, Yovana Mendosa Ayres, a raw vegan influencer, received death threats after a video of her eating fish leaked because she was “killing animals.” Seeing this happens can further reinforce your position, either to stay away from veganism or become a more hardcore vegan. 

Truth bomb: It is important to take note of your own belief trends and the online content you consume. 

Do you notice your own belief bubbles and echo chambers?

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References
  1. Garimella K, De Francisci Morales G, Gionis A, Mathioudakis M. Political Discourse on Social Media: Echo Chambers, Gatekeepers, and the Price of Bipartisanship. arXiv [csSI]. Published online January 5, 2018. http://arxiv.org/abs/1801.01665
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