November 13, 2008

Diets & Cults: is there a difference?

I'm a bum.

I was going to post a long, incredibly well-written and irrefutably researched review of Barry Sears' book, Toxic Fat. But I'm going to put that off until next week so I can put this up today.

(Okay, also because I still want to tweak it a bit more. It's not quite right yet.)

I absolutely loved one thing I read in Sears's book. To quote:

"Three things in life are visceral because they are based on belief systems: Religion, politics, and nutrition."


Emotions are closely tied in with food

You know how some people get a 'gut feeling'? The gut has such a high concentration of nerve cells that it has been called a second brain. The highest concentration is of course the brain.

No, I don't care what you've heard about some men, it really is in the head brain.

If there's a second brain in the gut, would that explain why people get so emotional about the favorite diet?

Whatever you do, don't disparage the diet

It looks like people develop an emotional attachment to a certain diet, or the philosophy behind it. As an example, take this review that Diet Blog did about Dr. Joel Fuhrman's diet book, Toxic Hunger. It's a pretty straightforward review, but what caught my attention were the comments. People got emotional over whether this diet was, or was not, a good idea.

Putting down a diet plan is a sure fire way to get a ton of comments on your blog. (Ah... the real reason for this post comes out.) The blog Starling Fitness averages a couple of comments on a post; when she wrote a mildly disapproving post about Weight Watchers and the points system, she got 95 comments. People are really into their particular diet.

If this blog were being written by Ms. Crabby, at this point there would be an insightful paragraph or two about why people defend their diet plans like a lioness defending her last cub. Since she ain't here, just imagine that something insightful was said at this point.

Okay, enough already.

Being me, I have to confess that I don't get why this is such an emotional issue. Being healthy is a good thing. Yeah, I got that part. But we're all different, right? So if diet A works for me, and diet B works for Crabby, why should the two of us have a huge argument about which is better?

I think diets are like cults in that people can get really obsessive about them both.

Weight watchers is evil!

It's tempting to disparage a whole lot of diet plans so that the post would get lots and lots of comments. (Weight Watchers is evil! The Zone Diet is followed by Terrorists! Hitler was a vegetarian!) But in all honesty, I don't get it. Why can't we all get along? Or agree to disagree, or something civilized like that?


  1. Wow! There's an upside to insomnia. I get to be the first person to comment on a post :)

  2. I agree that each diet is unique as are poeple and what works for one doesn't necessarily work for another. One of my older posts in my blog is about choosing the right diet for you. Everyone is different.

  3. insomnia and being an UPATTHECRACK'er

    Im 3rd.

    and my diet as of late sucketh.

    you'll have that sometimes.

    IMO obsession is never good. about anything from diets to will ferrel.

  4. Well, I personally don't get the fighting over a diet but I do think I understand the emotional response of anyone that is following a particular program when they hear that program being criticized. When we hear the negative things being said about a program we're following our defense mechanisms kick in and we hear "you're an idiot for following that diet!". That's my take on it. I know I tend to go on the defense when anything that I use or support is being attacked but I have a rather passive nature so I'm not going to start attacking the other person or another program because my feelings were hurt so I don't understand that part.

  5. I only wish I could find a healthy diet right now that I was passionate about...looking forward to your review!

  6. Hilarious and totally true. Not everything is going to work for everyone...although with intuitive eating I do kind of feel like I should spread the gospel...oh crap...I'm one of those people!

  7. It's funny, the only person who gets upset when I mention my high-protein diet is my mom.

    No one else cares that much.

  8. I agree that everyone is different, and different diets are going to work/not work for different people. I don't get why that is such a difficult concept, but it seems to be true that people get very attached to their diets.

    I understand that if/when a person finds the right solution for them they are thrilled and want to shout it from the rooftops...But if I say "that's great, but it doesn't work for me," does that invalidate their success somehow? It's certainly not meant as a criticism but people can take it that way. As you say, very much like a cult or religion.

  9. Well, I think lots of folks are defensive about their diets because any questioning of it is a challenge to their will and inner strength. To really do a diet you need inner resolve that your diet is the best (or the ONLY) way. You have to brainwash yourself, so to speak.

    That said, I do still criticize some diets & hurt some dieter's feeling because they are all-out crazy. I would like to be more open-minded, like I am about religion. (Though, there are really crazy religions out there too-- Waco, anyone?)

    If the pineapple diet or Master Cleanse worked for you, yes I will judge you because you're probably anemic and I've seen more people fail it than are my friends on Facebook. Same for the super low fat (yet high calorie) craze. Or Dexatrim.

    Sure, I think it's great people try to get healthy. But I'm not going to encourage anyone to drink the proverbial Kool-Aid.

  10. I get so tired of hearing people go on and on about how healthy some food is (soy in particular) especially when they won't shut up when I say "Yeah, right, IF you're not allergic to it." It's not that it happens so often, but after forty-odd years of it, I get, er, _cranky_ about it.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  11. I'm sorry, but I have to disagree with MizFit - there is absolutely nothing wrong with being completely and totally obsessed with Will Ferrell.

  12. Great post, and it's so true!

    I actually understand why people get defensive about their own diets, but what I don't understand is why I find myself judgmental about other people's. What do I care if they read some book that says only to eat purple foods on tuesdays and white foods on fridays or whatever?

    But even though I keep my mouth shut, I find myself annoyed when a diet seems dumb to me. Or when I see people eat nothing but "low calorie" fake processed food and think they're being virtuous.

    Note: we just arrived in New Orleans last night, so any talk of Diets and Sensible Eating might have to be greeted with "la la la la I can't hear you!" ...At least for a day or two.

  13. Crabby said it perfectly. I'm the same way. Except I can't keep my mouth shut. And I'm also not in New Orleans;)

  14. Your body is your temple right?? Makes sense why we are so emotionally tied to that.

    I can't hate on anyone's diet because, its really what works for you. On a twinkie diet? Good for you, if its getting you where you want to be, more power to ya!

  15. There is no quick fix, so we all find our own way and sometimes that means talking ourselves into that the plan we are using is the one right way. Silly. But I think it helps some people stick to the plan.


  16. Thank you for linking to my WW entry on Starling Fitness. Weight Watchers has been the only plan where I was able to lose weight, but their popularity has caused an entire "adding fiber to foods" industry. I guess it's not WW that I don't trust so much as the food they (and other manufacturers) sell.

    Thanks again for the link!

  17. Hi Laura!
    I don't think your post was anti-WW really, but it seemed like some of the people who left comments thought it might be somewhat non-positive.

  18. Success on Weight Watchers led to my disordered eating issues. I became obsessed ... hence, my blog.

  19. Ah well - let's face it, a lot of our attachment to a particular system is about wanting to get others to 'do it with us.' Misery (which is my book applies to most diets) loves company!

  20. Great post! Yes, when people criticize a diet, there is a "gut" reaction to defend the plan, particularly if they attribute their success to that diet.

    What they don't realize, I think, is that the success they had is largely tied to... drumroll... wait for it...


    They are the ones that stuck to the plan, they are the ones that made the sacrifices, whether it be calories in general or calories from specific types of foods. I think they give the diet WAY too much credit. Setting goals, having a plan and sticking to it is the key. The diet is just a tool in the belt.

    As for the question in your title, one determines your afterlife, the the other does not... determining which is which is a harder question!

  21. I admit, I have judged some people's diets. But mostly, I judge them when they seem to be following an untenable diet (where you only eat one food all the time, or something like that). For the most part, I figure, if it works for you, then great! I feel the same way about religion. I don't have a religion, don't want one, don't need one. But hey, if someone else does, more power to them.

    I have had trouble in the past with people on certain diets (specifically, vegetarianism) who were adamantly proselytizing their diet, who thought their way was the only way, and really it seemed a touch too much like religious people trying to convert the heathens. I don't like it. I have no problem with eating vegetarian, I think that it really does work for a lot of people, so yay for them. But I don't want to hear about how it's the only way.

    I agree with what another poster said about shouting from the rooftops when you find something that fits you. It's easy to take your experience and generalize it to say that that is what works, and everyone should do that. I admit, I have fallen into this pitfall on occasion, and I just have to remind myself that my way of eating is healthy for me, and isn't right for everyone.

  22. one of the top three (non porn related) searches that bring people to my site is "why weight watcher is wrong" - I wish they'd comment. And click on my ad.

    I hate WW, but it works for a lot of people, and honestly, it worked for me when I needed to lose the first 60 lbs. I do get a little heated up when people try to tell me that their crazy restriction diets work, but that's just because I love & don't want them to get all malnourished.

  23. How do you find out what searches bring people to your blog?

  24. I only "judge" when my already too thin friend panics over a 2lb weight gain and vows too starve herself until it's gone...then I smack the stupid out of here. Kidding, I try to listen and understand and give her some nutrition/exercise tips. For what good it does.
    I personally don't care what people think of my that a good thing or bad thing? Agree with MizFit, obsession = bad.

  25. I guess it all depends if you drink the (sugar-free) Kool-aid, hm?

    I would normally not link to a post on my own blog (gratuitously self-serving? bah), but I wrote a recent post hypothesizing that there is such a thing as Dieting Stockholm Syndrome that is actually relevant to the whole My Diet Is My Religion type of thing!

    P.S. I am on Weight Watchers and I totally CHALLENGE YOU TO A DUEL!

  26. I agree with April.

    Going a bit further, I think emotion over a diet is kind of fear based, like people who are rigidly religious and can't tolerate any questions about it because they're afraid it's not really true. When you're obsessed about your weight, you tend to obsess about a diet and don't want to be told that it's not going to work when you've invested so much emotion in it.

    And speaking of obsession, I've worked with the WW off and on--I don't think it's a bad system, but I do have to say it was difficult at first because it requires obsessively recording everything and figuring out how many points things are --until you kind of get your routine down, and it eases up a bit. But it's hard to deal with the obsessing about food thing if you're not that kind of person to begin with.

  27. I love this post. Many of my friends follow different nutrition plans and we can compare and contract them to death, but none of us ever take it personally.

  28. This is such a great perspective! (Very amusing timing too what with my post the other day). Dieting is very cult-ish. Isn't it fun to discuss things that fire us up? :)

  29. If they're diet isn't perfect and right, then it won't work and people don't know how to lose the weight. You take away their control (or perception of it) when you show (even a little) that it might be bad. If what they chose is wrong then what's right? Having no "right" it often scary.

  30. Here's a few points Mike made about cults and WW:

    Weight Watchers: Very good for accountability and can be helpful in teaching people about portion control.

    Weight Watchers cult: Obsessing about points to the degree that it interferes with the ability to choose healthy foods based on their nutrient densities.

  31. I think it relates to the fantasy of being thin. People go on diets to lose weight, because they're "so fat", and a lot of them think their lives will be perfect when they hit that magic number. They think all their issues will be solved. So, when criticize their diet du jour, you're criticizing what they see as their salvation, their path to happiness, their path to being "worthy" because they're skinny.

    I will admit that I sometimes would slip in to low-carb prophet mode, back in the day when my every other thought was "ZOMG IM SO FATZ!!!!1!!" Now that I'm over that, I still love to talk about it--when people ask me--because I think it's fascinating how human biology works in relation to food. I'm sure some people still perceive me as trying to bring them down, though.

  32. I don't know what to say. I've been on tons of diets and never argued about them except with myself.

  33. Losing weight depends so much on a person's state of mind that the emotional attachment to a particular diet program isn't surprising. And then we all need different things out of life, right? Some people need structure, some people need a lot of social outlets, etc. So the need for different approaches to losing weight shouldn't be a surprise either.

    I'm an organized soul, but I detest having my options dictated to me. WW has always worked for me because it lets me incorporate the flexibility I need, while the points system appealed to my need for, well, a system. For some people, that same flexibility would be a danger zone, while others might be system-phobic. Ultimately, as long as it's a healthy program and one that will serve you long term, it doesn't matter which road you take.

    I do take issue with these fad diets that insist a particular food group is evil or divine. I knew a woman years ago who ended up with health problems because of her obsession with fat-free and sugar-free only foods. It's been some years now so I'm hazy on the details, but it turned out that her obsession lead to a deficit of something necessary in the diet (or maybe it was a reaction to fake sugar? Well, I did say I was hazy on the deets). Likewise, I read of similar problems with anti-carb fanatics and the pro-fiber crowd. Those are extreme examples, but it shows what harm can be done by diet gurus who - let's face it - are mostly in it for the money from book sales.

    Ms. Merry, you are missed.

  34. No diet is perfect- if it was then it would be easy, work for everyone, and obesity would be a thing of the past. Since we all respond differently, we will all have different opinions regarding what diets are good vs. bad, easy vs. hard, crazy vs. normal. It's just human nature to argue : )

  35. I think sometimes we get fired up because we want to defend our choices even to the death on extreme cases. I agree on the cult like trance. It's amazing how diets can get people under like being hypnotized.

  36. Ah so true, so true. And isn't it interesting.

    She says sounding like the complete nutrition nerd she is.

    It's personally felt if you criticise The Diet. The person takes it as a criticism of them.

    There's also a lot of emotional investment in dieting. So you're criticising something that is deeply held, cherished and clung on to by the individual.

    Looking forward to the review now as well!

  37. "The gut has such a high concentration of nerve cells that it has been called a second brain."

    Had never heard that before, but makes sense to me. Given my relationship history with food-weight-diets, I must have an extremely low IQ in my "second brain."

    p.s. South Beach Diet is for desperate housewives! ;-)

  38. Everyone has different body chemistry and that plays alot into what kind of diets work for you:)

  39. I don't know, my plan of choice is WW Core (with focus on the 8 good health guidelines), and I love that it makes everything so easy for me. That doesn't mean I don't have criticisms like why can't I use a serving of walnuts, or teaspoon of coconut oil as a healthy fat; or that I think fat-free cheese should be illegal because it is so awful? Or why is the lady behind the desk such a c*** today?

    The thing is that when other people say that the plan is awful, it's like someone criticizing your family (I can criticize my sister all I want, but if you criticize her - watch out!).

    I also feel critical about diets such as those that involve tons of processed food and artificial sweetener. I just don't tell people that I think they're poisoning themselves - I say (if they ask) that for me - whole foods are the only way for ME to keep MY mood and energy in check.

  40. I agree with you. What works for one person may not necessarily work for the next. Our bodies are so different that it is difficult to speculate that a particular diet will work wonders for everyone!

  41. Yep, everyone has to find what works for them.. we are all so different with different needs. Good article.


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