Is Your Diet a Cult?

By Mike Howard
332-pentagram.jpg

The word “cult” may conjure up an image of unorthodox or otherwise questionable or extreme religious followings, but the definition of “cults”, according to Webster, also defines them as;

  1. A system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator;
  2. Great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book).

Both of these definitions certainly relate to the world of diets. Here’s how to recognize a diet cult and how to deprogram from the diet cult mentality:

Recognizing a diet cult

  • If you aren’t thriving on this diet, or something isn’t working for you – it’s your fault, according to the creator of the diet or their ardent followers.
  • A dualist mentality where there are unambiguous “good” and “evil” components of the diet or lifestyle. (ie. a macronutrient, a substance, a supplement).
  • Discouragement of critical thinking and a slant towards group-think mentality.
  • Creating a dependency on the diet or the abolishment of personal autonomy or critical thinking.
  • Overselling the appeal of vanity
  • The creator of the diet and its proponents cry persecution when anyone raises a contrary opinion to it.

I would argue though that the cultism isn’t so much the diet itself, but rather the way it is practiced. For example:

Low carb diets: For the most part can be a sensible, healthy way of eating that can be good for the waistline.
Low carb cults: Apples will make you fat, fiber has no health benefits, tiny amounts of sugar will ruin your metabolism and Atkins was infallible. .

Vegetarian diets: Can be healthy if practiced carefully and not too high in refined carbs.
Vegetarian cults: Animal rights crusaders who fancy themselves enlightened and kind in their abstinence of meat. The belief that any meat or dairy in the diet will lead to disease.

Raw Food diets: Probably okay for a short time but limiting and potentially deficient in some vitamins and minerals.
Raw Food Cults: Anything cooked is toxic and destroys enzymes and will cause disease and shortened life. An exaggeration of the benefits of raw food lifestyles including the cure of diseases such as cancer.

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.

Let’s not forget the hundreds of big and small commercial weight loss centers that claim to have “the answer” to your weight problems. Oh, and the multi-level marketing “super-juices” and other expensive meal-replacements and supplements may also have a place on the “cult list”.

Deprogramming

If you currently are, or have been a chronic dieter or have had negative experiences with dieting in general, you may feel discouraged or even hopeless. Here are some ways to re-wire your brain for sustainable healthy eating:

  • This may seem common sense by now but the message bears repeating: There are no quick fixes or universally perfect solutions.
  • Know that you and only you make the decisions regarding your health. Learn as much as you can about healthy eating and make decisions from there. You are in control!
  • See food as the solution – not the problem to your health and weight.
  • Reframe success: Look at markers other than scale weight to determine your goals. Set goals to eat more vegetables, eat out less or walk more.
  • Join communities (in person or on-line) that are support-based, encourage critical thinking, individuality, and do not promote extreme measures.

Which diets/programs do you think are cults? How do you keep from falling into the diet trap?

19 Comments

  1. kristin

    What does a pentagram have to do with a cult?? You ought to have used a cross.

    Reply
  2. Jambalaya

    I think this is an excellent, thought-provoking article with many very well-argued points. However, I do take significant issue with how you define vegetarian cultism. It’s not simply cult-like thinking to follow a diet on ethical principals, be it for animal rights, ecological sustainability, etc. Where it becomes cult-like to me is where health facts are bent to suit the ethics, and I have seen this again and again. So you are right in your point about thinking dairy or meat will cause disease or are poisonous. But believing it is kind not to kill animals, that is a belief, an ethical choice, not cult thinking. We have to be careful not to overuse the word ‘cult’ or it loses meaning. In theological use, there is a difference between a cult and a religion. In the diet sense, perhaps a healthy-minded vegetarianism that has ethics as its basis could be thought of more like religious belief that should be respected even if you don’t believe in it yourself. There is a point where a line is crossed, though, where vegetarianism/veganism becomes dogmatic but I don’t believe your first sentence about vegetarianism coming from an animal rights perspective defines it correctly.

    Reply
    • Based

      Just these cults.

      Reply
    • nick

      “Animal rights” is horseshit. animals dont have rights. animals cant follow laws, animals dont carry a passport, animals cant vote. if an animal is hungry, will it give a shit about your rights? a lion ask your permission or check with the government if it’s OK to rip your head off? how can you extend “rights” to a group of animals that dont care about those “rights”, dont use those “rights”, and dont even know that they have those “rights”? it’s a cult.

      Reply
  3. Charles

    In the Zone Diet, Dr. Barry Sears compares diet beliefs to religious beliefs. People can get so workout up about what they believe that they filter out anything that is not in-line with their beliefs.

    Reply
  4. Cari

    Great thought-provoking article Mike. I think there is lots of truth in the cultish like thinking of diet followers. And I have to admit to being pretty slavishly zealous about many diets in my younger years – trying to convince as many other ‘followers’ to my latest craze/cult as possible. Like your deprogramming ideas too.

    Reply
  5. Laura

    Great article. I think that so many people like myself, are looking for the magic diet that will reverse years of bad eating habits in an instant. After years of unseccussful diets I realized that most of these diets lead to starvation and in turn failure. What I have found is that by allowing myself to eat more throughout the day, that I am less likely to over indulge in foods that are otherwise bad for me. When I eat more throughout the day, I don’t feel deprived and I am also more likely to pass on food that I will regret later. It boils down to science and not magic. More frequent meals in smaller portions equals steady metabolism which burns more calories throughout the day. Simple math.

    Reply
  6. Janice - Review This Weight Loss Programs

    Thanks for this informative post! It always helps to find sensible articles like these who try to separate the chaff from the grain, so to speak. I have encountered quite a few diet cults myself, and some of the nonsense I’ve been unlucky enough to hear were just plain annoying, if not dangerous. That’s why I make it a point to find and bookmark sites that give out solid information.

    Reply
  7. John Sifferman - Burn The Fat

    I think there is an obvious difference between diet cults and diet communities. For example…

    A diet cult considers it your fault if your diet isn’t working, a diet community works through issues together and finds what is missing and what needs to be done.

    A diet cult categorizes “good” and “evil” components of the diet or lifestyle. A diet community recognizes that there is no such thing as black and white dieting – all diets are personal, individual – and there is no such thing as a good or bad food.

    While diet cults look down on critical, out-of-the-box thinking, the diet communities I have been involved with are most concerned with liberating its members from the details of dieting and teaching them to make their nutrition personal, so that they “own it.”

    The best diet communities are led by someone or a group of people that have an open mind that is willing to examine all sides of the evidence, and most importantly are willing to accept change.

    These are the things I would watch for when looking for a diet or fat loss community.

    To your health and success,
    John Sifferman NSCA-CPT

    Reply
  8. Gabrielle

    I just have one more point to add to the list of cult aptitudes: Someone is considered a traitor if they decide to leave and are punished as such.

    I can think of a few diets where this happens.

    Reply
  9. Spectra

    I’ve seen several examples of diets that I would classify as cults. The “Skinny Bitch” book kinda reminds me of a cult…soda is “poison”, milk is evil, etc. Besides being very superior-sounding in tone, the authors of that book are very deprecating of anyone that chooses a non-vegetarian lifestyle.

    As for WW, I’ve come across my share of WW nuts…people who tally up Points like they’re gold or something. It’s very weird. Or the people on the program that choose to eat say, 23 apples at 1 point each to get their daily points. Just about any diet can get weird if you get too carried away with it. I think a lot of obsessive dieters can cross over into the ED territory if they aren’t careful.

    Reply
  10. personal trainer

    >>This may seem common sense by now but the message bears repeating: There are no quick fixes or universally perfect solutions.

    Sadly ‘quick fixes’ and ‘universally perfect solutions’ are the only things that sell in the weight loss industry.

    Selling healthy, sustainable weight loss – which is what chronic dieters really need – is like trying to sell a car that only goes 20mph but never crashes. People will always go for the riskier, faster option, even if the consequence is invariably a crash.

    Reply
  11. marilyn

    I hadn’t hought about diets this way, but it makes sense.

    Reply
  12. Pater Rolf Hermann Lingen

    Although “sin” normally is out of the conscience, there are cases when many people still use this term: for pornography and for eating. Eating is sometimes considered as far worse than fornication. Furthermore, in German, the word for “cream” and the word for “sin” sound very similar (“Sahne” and “S√ľnde”), so instead of “a piece of cake with cream”, some people order “… with sin”.
    This might be considered as “funny”, but probably it shows a deeper problem. Eating healthy has become an alternative religion. Nearly nobody cares about chastity or in general about his immortal soul etc. Dieting, however, *IS* a kind of cult for many.

    Reply
  13. Supplements

    I think this is an issue that should definitely be brought up. The same can also be said for certain types of “health clubs”.

    Reply
  14. Vania

    I agree diet

    Reply
  15. Vasia

    I think any diet can be turned into a cult experience

    Reply
  16. sarah

    off topic, but it’s pretty dumb to have a picture of an inverted pentagram to apparently symbolise a ‘cult’ – shame on your ignorance.

    Reply
  17. cereal

    This post reminds me of a certain Toxic argument that we had earlier. I don’t recall using the word cult, but I definitely think it applied.

    I think any diet can be turned into a cult experience ,but the ones with the most rigid rules are more prone to go down that path.

    Reply