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Food as religion: secularization, diet cults and eating disorders

Food as religion: secularization, diet cults and eating disorders

In our secularized society, people seek for religions without God. That is, something that can provide them with a guide to live, a meaning, a community and ideals. Truths that speak about good and evil. Lately, this is more and more sought in food. But religions without God soon turn into cults, and that’s the adjective that certain fad diets deserve. Read this article and don’t let them fool you!

Pure and impure foods

The focal point of these new pseudo-religions are foods. Some are good, clean and pure; others, bad, dirty and impure. That’s how they call them, using hashtags like #cleaneating. Eating ones or others means that we as people are described by the first or the second groups of adjectives. Attributing these kind of moral features to food is very dangerous and can cause serious damage to physical health (nutritional deficiencies, binge-purge cycles, etc.) and, above all, to mental health, because of the linking our personal worth to what we eat.

This language about food reminds me, alarmingly, to Manichaeism, the heresy that St. Augustine battled in the 4th century. Manichaeans had a “seal of the mouth” that regulated the amount and kinds of food they could eat. Some foods were considered impure. For example, meat was forbidden, since animals had their origin in demons; moreover, they reproduce by carnal generation, which is a work of concupiscence. Although, in their opinion, alive animals contained some elements of the divine principle, those were gradually released with their activities and when they died nothing was left except a dirty mass. Eating meat meant getting dirty through this contact with impure matter, and postponing the process of separating light from darkness in the world.

Food pseudo-religions lose this philosophical background and keep the superficial part: the purity and impurity of foods. Where do they find the justification for this classification, then? In pseudo-scientific theories, as we shall see.

Belonging to a group

A key factor that makes people jump into these food cults is the need of a community. Many times people come from low self-esteem experiences, perhaps because of their body image, or they don’t find around them anyone with whom they can share the lifestyle change they want to begin. Through internet, they find a huge community of people that provide them with support and advice.

This is positive in some contexts, but can lead to two problems:

  • Shutting themselves in a bubble, in which as everyone thinks the same and repeats again and again the same ideas, the person ends up normalizing behaviors that are less than healthy and closing their eyes completely to reality.
  • Generating a social pressure that makes the person feel forced to keep eating the same way forever to keep being part of the group and not lose “their tribe”.

I’m talking about communities with a trademark like Weight Watchers or Slimming World, but also about things like the keto diet, the paleo diet or the plant-based diet with all its versions. I’ve met people that have struggled a lot to remove those tags from them or to admit in public that they didn’t eat that way anymore, because they were afraid of losing they community they had surrounded themselves with from that diet.

The gurus

Some kinds of diets are based on the teachings of a “master”, someone who has written a book that it’s taken as the Bible and who is considered infallible. It’s the case of Barry Sears with the Zone Diet or Robert Atkins with the diet called as his surname. One must be careful with these people and their books, since they use a language that seems scientific. We ought to check 4 things:

  • Their education.
  • That they reference serious scientific studies.
  • That those studies really say what they say that they say.
  • That there isn’t a huge evidence pointing towards the opposite and they’ve chosen to ignore it.

Generally speaking, these gurus get enormous amounts of money thanks to the naivety of people who are desperate to find a dogma that guides their diet and, deep down, their life. At the expense of the health of these people.

Dogmatism

Nutrition is a young science, where there are still lots of things that must be investigated and discovered. However, these food cults do not admit the scientific development. The findings have come to an end with them, and their beliefs have been already fixed. This is called dogmatism. And, by the way, their dogmas are incompatible. They defend diametrically opposed things, that can’t be all true. In fact, at least for the time being, there are few absolute truths in nutrition. But this isn’t what people want to hear. We don’t like uncertainty, we want assurance, convictions, a plan to follow, so as to avoid feeling uncomfortable. That’s normal, since in the midst of the “everything’s fair” of our society, we long for something to hold on to.

Absolutes in nutrition

If the results of part of these diets aren’t so catastrophic it’s precisely because it’s not difficult to meet the requirements of the few absolute truths we know. Real food. Moderation. Variety. And little else. Unfortunately, there are still people promoting absurd diets that don’t even meet those basic principles, focusing only in calories (the old fad diets renewed) or excluding whole groups of foods. Even so, ones and others can work because the human body is wonderful and will do everything possible to keep its owner alive. So a person can be healthy not thanks to, but despite their faulty diet.

On the other hand, in spite of the fact that this is just what they deny, human beings have a great adaptability to different diets, as one can check by comparing the way of eating of the primitive tribes throughout the world. So truly a person can do well in one kind of diet, while other gets sick. What is a pity is that people in the second group feel like there’s something wrong with them, blame themselves, ignore their body signals and pretend everything’s fine because that’s how it’s supposed to be. They put their food ideology above reality, which is detrimental to themselves and to others who they attract to the same ideology.

Dualism

A good pseudo-religious ideology must be simple, and simple means extreme. Black and white, no grayscale. Allies and enemies. And one, only one, guiding principle, and one enemy to focus on (as in politics). The enemy can be gluten, lactose, carbs, sugar, fats, processed food, etc. Even calories in general (the less, the better). The followers learn a series of pseudo-scientific mottos that repeat in a violent tone leaving comments in social media under other people’s pictures that show the thing they combat. I, on the other hand, stand up for a message of:

  • Balance: that is, #balancednotclean. Eating something that the snobs don’t consider “clean” —what does that mean, anyway?— doesn’t make you less worth it, less fit, less healthy… You can lead a healthy life without adhering to a food creed. What’s more, then you’ll probably be healthier than them.
  • Education: there isn’t an information overload in nutrition as some say, but an excess of lack of information, of confusion. Knowledge is power: when we have the data, we can make choices and don’t let others trick us with flashy headlines and simplistic proposals that claim to have found a panacea.
  • Individualization: each of us has a different body with its own needs, because of our genetics, lifestyle, habits, specific circumstances such as illnesses, or even likings. We should learn to know and to listen to our body instead of trying to decide in the abstract what’s “best” and imposing that on ourselves by force, no matter what, because it has to be like that.

Sin

Oddly enough, while in the true religious field the truth of sin is silenced or downplayed, giving way to the prevalence of the “feeling good”, “it’s alright”, etc., with food the trend is just the opposite: there are commandments and sins. This is very dangerous, specially because of how it has surreptitiously sneaked in the everyday language.

It’s so normal to listen to someone say they’ve been good or bad with food, or that they’ve “sinned” if they haven’t followed a diet to the letter. Or to talk about food as a “temptation”, which is something bad we should avoid but that is hard to resist because of the pleasure it’s going to give us. If we give in, we sin. And don’t even get me started with the famous concept of “cheat days” or “cheat meals”, which literally means cheating on your diet as if it was a person. It’s the typical notion of “be bad but don’t get caught”, enjoying the pleasure of the forbidden.

Obviously, this is a terrible mindset to have towards food, and promotes the problem of people bingeing in secret and being ashamed of themselves for doing so, pretending then that nothing happened. And pro-ana (pro-anorexia) communities take this language to the extreme: of course, if eating, eating certain things or certain calories is so wrong and such a sin, something that makes you dirty… then you need to avoid it at all costs. And that’s why they feel morally superior, because they’re able to completely resist where most people “fall” (a term also widely used in society).

Penance

Sin leads to repentance, and penance is needed to make amends. It’s usually expressed through compensating or restricting. I’ve been bad, I’ve fallen, I’ve given in, and now I must pay the price. But you should stop and think: have you actually done wrong to someone? To others? Not.

To God? Maybe, if there’s been a lack of temperance (which can be by default too, not only by excess). But then talk to a priest and not to a diet guru. Of course, in Christianity there are no forbidden foods, or a diet you must follow because of religion. Jesus abolished the Jewish restrictions of impurity upon certain foods. There isn’t a “food god”. The character of the “goddess Ana” of anorexics sounds so twisted, but some allegedly healthy people behave in practice as if they believed in her.

To yourself? Maybe, but entering a cycle of compensation and restriction is only going to make the problem worse. Sometimes there might even not be a problem, because one meal or one day or a few days are never going to ruin your progress, or maybe that day you did well by eating more because your body needed it, or if the issue is that you’ve gained weight one day, it can be due to multiple factors that aren’t fat gain… If there’s really something you must correct, that doesn’t mean you have to turn to extremes, or beat yourself up, or insult yourself. For some people, those punishments are even physical, against their bodies: vomits, self-harm, laxatives, excessive exercise, etc. But things get serious long before that.

Conclusions

To sum up, I believe there are three phenomena that are intertwined: secularization, food idolization and eating disorders. People need to believe not only in something abstract, a “spirituality”, but in something tangible, that structures their life, that gives them connection with a group, that informs their decisions and provides them with a set of beliefs to see the world. Feeling they’re part of something right and important. But when one seeks this in an idol, such as food, it doesn’t fill the soul, and then it leads to madness.

The more generalized this disordered mindset of good, bad, clean, dirty, sin, penance, restriction, shame, superstition, etc. becomes around food, the more favorable is the breeding ground for the development of eating disorders in vulnerable people. And they are detected later, because at first these people are seen as the ones who do things better, and they get praise, they’re admired. But their destiny is the painful evidence of where one ends up when they’re consistent with these beliefs, just that. The same ones that are being spread like wildfire and proclaimed from the media.

Examine how you think and how you talk about food in public. Practice critical thinking. Don’t base your self-esteem on food. Don’t justify your way of eating or make others feel like they need to do so. Don’t spread myths. Take care of yourself and promote that others do the same, but from a positive, objective and… healthy perspective.

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