Sunday, May 17, 2015

Why Do Fad Diets Make People So Angry? Thoughts on Religion, Being Human, and the Whole 30

Do you want to see people get really, really angry? Talk to them about a diet fad. Go to the comment section of any article about gluten or "clean" eating or any other diet of the moment.

Fad diets aren't new, but the social media support systems around them and the ability to share your every meal with massive amounts of friends, "friends," and strangers is. And I'm guilty of it, too.

I did the Whole 30 challenge back in 2013 and blogged about it at the time. I never believed that I had a gluten allergy, but I was willing to try the Whole 30 as a way to challenge my perspective on food and try out something that made me get creative in the kitchen. I actually felt fantastic while I was on the diet, but it was utterly unsustainable for me (and I suspect most people).

There was a time when I was letting the food stuff get to my head in a way I'm not proud of. I distinctly remember scanning recipes and seeing canned, bagged, or bottled ingredients that would make me stick my nose up at their clear inattention to health. "Clean" eating. "Real" food. These were the guidelines I wanted to follow. I read The Omnivore's Dilemma and Food Rules and felt full of knowledge and power.

My turn away from these practices has been more pragmatic than philosophical. I still believe that eating a variety of non-processed, fresh, locally-sourced foods is the best practice and one I work towards adopting. But I also have a freezer full of Trader Joe's turkey corn dogs and whole wheat waffles. Why? Because making ketchup from scratch takes a whole lot of time, and dissertations don't write themselves.

So I've found myself at an interesting place while watching the backlash to diets like the Whole 30 unfold. I'm not following the diet, but I have before. I'm not adhering to the principles, but I haven't completely abandoned them as useless. I feel like I'm in a middle ground between two very set warring camps, ducking down in a foxhole while hand-crafted, gluten-free pizza crusts made of cauliflower and bottles of Roundup get lobbed over my head.

I'm not here alone. There are plenty of other people in the middle ground trying to figure out what this discussion of eating and science, health and fanaticism, industry and elitism means for us. There's a really great interview with Alan Levinovitz, a religious scholar who looks at the philosophical underpinning of our food manias. He says a lot of smart things, but this is the one that stuck with me the most:
Science is not great at constructing narratives. That’s its virtue and its downfall. Scientific inquiry has to divorce itself from what makes the best story, and science writers, myself included, are in the business of making science compelling by telling stories.
I study rhetoric, and this issue reaches all the way back to Plato and Aristotle. Rhetoric has repeatedly been dismissed as a "knack" that ran the risk of clouding the "real" knowledge of science. But people respond to narrative, to stories. And it's not just (as I think Levinovitz is short-sightedly implying here) that rhetoric "dresses up" the real truth to make it palatable for the science-adverse public. Rhetoric is a means of invention, not just a tool of amplification. Truths are discovered within stories, not just through them.

So what are the "truths" of the stories we tell ourselves about food? What do the tales of gluten woe and ethical eating mean for us? Why are we drawn to them so completely, and should we be ashamed at our lack of scientific grounding for our claims?

These are the kind of tasks we often use religion to accomplish. Indeed, many people have noted the connection (with various tones of disgust/reverence) between the way we treat food and religion.

Levinovitz has some thoughts on this as well:
This takes us back to religion. There are a great many things about religion that are extraordinary. It helps us ask and answer questions about mortality, about beauty, about goodness, about truth, that really can’t be addressed by scientific studies. I think that it is a pity when people start trying to answer those questions with the kinds of foods that they eat. It’s kind of sad, right, that now the way we confront death is by avoiding Fritos. What a pathetic ritual, right? Strap on your Fitbit and shop at Whole Foods instead of, you know, sitting down and thinking about Job.
I was with him for a moment. I do think that religion serves the function of giving us answers we can't find in science. Religion is a way of making sense of a senseless world, and the way we talk about food often serves that same purpose. When we're talking about how we nourish our bodies, our fear of mortality, our ethical interaction with finite resources, we are asking questions that go beyond the scope of science alone. Science is very important to all of these topics. Science holds answers about nutrition (even if the scientific community struggles to find consensus). Science holds answers about mortality. Science holds answers about global warming and GMOs and the pain animals feel in the slaughterhouse. What science does not hold is a guide book for what we should do with that information or how we should process it when it contradicts.

And is strapping on a Fitbit and avoiding grains really such a horrible way to check in with your body and forge a path out of that tangle of information? Does it really deserve all of this vitriol?

Michelle at The Fat Nutritionist recently tackled this topic, and I love what she had to say:
What’s missing is an acknowledgment that people do things that are not evidence-based, but are often for very good reasons, nevertheless. People make decisions all the time that are not based on scientific evidence or even a factual understanding of how something works, but rather, they make those decisions based on cultural values, or aesthetic preferences, or as a way of expressing and managing the anxieties of being human. Far from being a sign of weakness or irrationality, I think this can make a lot of sense.
People don't always make science-based decisions, and it's not because they're too dumb to understand the science; it's because science doesn't have all of the answers. Food is a lot more complicated than it might first appear. Every decision we make about food is a tangle of ethics, health, convenience, tradition, and aesthetics. The fact that those decisions are splintered through a prism of societal constraints ranging from fat phobia to aggressive farming practices of mega-corporations funding GMO research doesn't make it any easier.

Michelle goes on to say that the problem arises when people make pseudo-scientific arguments to justify their non-scientific decisions. Why do they do this?
It is very tempting to reach for scientific-sounding explanations, because those explanations are privileged in our culture. They carry a kind of social capital.
She even connects this to her own interests as an advocate of the Health at Every Size approach:
I see people involved in fat acceptance and Health at Every Size do it fairly often. I try, when I can, to acknowledge that a large part of my perspective about body weight and eating is based on a moral decision I have come to: that it is not acceptable to treat people as less-than based on a physical trait, and that fat people have the moral and legal right to eat normally, without dieting, if they want. There may be some scientific evidence to support the principles of Health at Every Size, but for me, the core of this issue is, and has always been, moral.
We make our decisions out of a complex web of resources, and we aren't always equipped to fully articulate just what path we took to do it. The fact that science feels so much firmer than aesthetics or morality makes us cling to it when it does not fit.

Science and religion (or religion-like adherence to food guidelines) do not have to be at odds, but using them simultaneously without an explosion of dichotomies (natural vs. artificial, healthy vs. unhealthy, fat vs. fit, humane vs. inhumane, rhetoric vs. science, corporate vs. individual) is really, really difficult.

Photos: Sarah R, Donna Cleveland, ViktorDobai

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