Health Fanaticism: A Look at Diet and Exercise Cults

By Mike Howard

2726-cult.jpgReligion, politics, and yes let’s add nutrition to the fray. In my in-the-trenches experience in the industry and the blogosphere, I’ve noticed that people take their chosen paths of optimal health very seriously. And by very seriously I mean that many border on obsessed and dare I say, cultish.

This will be the first of a multi-part series that will examine various nutritional, exercise, and health trends that cross over into fanatical. This instalment will focus on how to recognize a health cult.

Cultish Criteria: Identifying the Health, Fitness and Nutritional Zealots

  • The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader/philosophy and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.
  • Questioning, doubt, dissent are minimized or discouraged
  • The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel. The power of suggestion plays heavily here from leaders to followers.
  • The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar–or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).
  • The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society – an outsider vs. insider doctrine.
  • The leader is not accountable to any authorities – particularly those of the scientific community.
  • A “group-think” mentality, where individualism is only encouraged to the extent that is allowed by the nutritional cult leader.
  • Rigid rules and regulations to eating – rarely to never grounded in good science.
  • The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no other path towards optimal health than the one they have chosen.
  • Consider themselves and their authorities to be “forward thinkers” and feel that if the rest of the world would just “get it” we would be one big happy, healthy, and lean planet.
  • Their way of eating, and their authorities who espouse it are victims of persecution by the media, crooked scientists and government.
  • A victim mentality – whereby they feel slighted by the “non-believers”.
  • Excessive reliance on logical fallacies to defend said way of living.
  • Claiming any extremists within their group are “a few bad apples” and “no more zealous than any other group”.
  • Obliviousness to the reality that they are in fact part of the cult by their fervent defence of their chosen health path.
  • Excessive reliance on a single (or small handful) of books to “prove” the worthiness of what they promote.

In the next few episodes I will look at some of the most prominent dietary zealots. I will look at specific diets and we will examine the difference between the sensible

Stay tuned!

Image Credit: Flickr/kevindooley

12 Comments

  1. Melinda

    Some of these diet groups are indeed cults. They don’t allow
    the eating of bread. You have a list of foods, you can never
    mention in a group. There is austerity in the air. ‘Mother may I?’
    Getting prior permission for everything you eat. Being verbally reprimanded, for everything you do. There is a cold wind a blowing; much like a ‘Siberian winter’… These types of groups only encourage obsessive compulsive behavior.

    Reply
  2. Survivor

    Check out Transformation.com. I was a member of that “community” for about 1.5 years…got sucked into the ‘mindset’ and finally got smart enough to get out. It’s fine if you “drink the kool aid” but if you question anything, you’re seen as weak and a trouble maker. In fact, if you speak up too much, you’re kicked out, and sometimes, even blocked from bringing up the website. I expected more from Bill Phillips (of Body for Life fame), but I guess my expectations were too high.

    Reply
  3. seriously

    Don’t forget the “low fat” cult. Bet that won’t be covered.

    Reply
  4. DFH

    The article was a nice try, but it’s just building up a strawman “wrong” way so that the “right” way can be identified later.

    Reply
  5. Mike Howard

    Lol… neither group will escape the clutches of fanatacism
    : )

    Reply
  6. MichaelD

    I would say the fanatical veganists are on the same level…working their climate change beliefs into their whole philosophy. Gary Taubes can’t compete with that.

    Reply
  7. FreeODAT

    Sounds a lot like Food Addicts Anonymous, aka F.A., a 12-step off-shoot cult where some of the hardcore members literally say, “At first I thought this was a cult, but then I realized my brain needs washing!” No joke. They meet monthly in Oakland and don’t allow anyone to speak at meetings until they have 60 or 90 days of perfect “abstinence,” which is three weighed and measured meals eaten after gaining approval of a sponsor, who hears your menu daily during the mandatory Early O’Clock (5:00 – 6:30 a.m. usually). That phone call comes after the mandatory morning reading; the mandatory 1/2 hour quiet time; and before the approved times for breakfast, lunch and dinner; before the three daily required phone calls; before reading two pages of the AA Big Book nightly; before the three mandatory “committed” meetings each week; before the monthly meeting in Oakland; etc. Oh, and you don’t get to work the steps with a sponsor; it’s a group (AWOL) you can only attend if you’re “abstinent” with food. So no stepwork if you’re in the food; no steps with a sponsor; no sharing at meetings; etc. I was in FA for a year and a half, after being in OA for ten years. Only a small handful of the hardcore FA-ers keep the weight off; they’re the well-meaning but Stepford-like cult members.

    Reply
  8. Alexie

    I hope you’ll be covering the Gary Taubes fanatics! I’ve never seen anything like them…

    Reply
  9. Mike Howard

    Oh thank you for this! This is prime material for an upcoming section.

    Reply
  10. O.

    No offense, but this sounds like most nutrition and exercise experts that I have heard or who’s work I’ve read.

    Reply
  11. Lestamore

    I don’t know if you are focusing only on diet centered cults, but consider looking at Dahn Hak. They offer yoga and health programs, and if you get more deeply involved promise psychic powers and recommend cutting ties with friends or family members who express concern about their intensive program.

    Reply
  12. Spectra

    I’ve heard of these cults before, but I’ve never done much research on them. I guess I’d rather just eat a healthy diet on my own and leave the cults to themselves.

    Reply