Diet Cults, by Matt Fitzgerald, debunks many of the myths surrounding diet in our culture.
Fitzgerald defines a diet cult to be a way of eating that is morally based, identity forming, and community building, and that is viewed by its followers as superior to all other ways of eating.
Some examples would be low-carb diets like the Atkins or South Beach, primeval diets like the Paleo, and extreme diets such as the raw food diet and veganism.
The way we choose our diets says a lot about our nature as humans. We often delude ourselves into thinking we’ve found the answer – the one supreme diet that best harmonizes with our biological systems. But this type of absolutist thinking is more wishful than factual.
There is no such thing as the healthiest diet.
All the diet cults are fundamentally the same, and all are based on the myth that the human diet is perfectible.
When I was a high school long-distance runner, I would run home from morning practice, bike to the corner market, and come home with a two liter of Pepsi and a box of donuts. I did this ritualistically for an entire summer while running 75-85 miles per week. I still ran a 5K in 16:11 and weighed around 115 pounds, though I’m sure my performance could have improved had I not been pigging out like Homer Simpson nearly every day.
Most professional endurance athletes are not part of a diet cult. They rely mainly on an inclusive diet that follows the common nutrition science guidelines – what Fitzgerald calls agnostic healthy eating. The same would work for us.
But maybe it’s not so much about what we eat but really why we eat it.
We join diet cults to gain an identity and a sense of belonging.
We like to think we arrived at a particular diet through clear, logical reasoning (though what logic leads to the Pepsi/donut diet?). But if you’ve ever studied human behavior then you know how easily we delude ourselves.
We are drawn to a particular diet not through reason but through self-identity. It is the biases in how we define ourselves that predispose us toward a particular diet. That’s why people get tattoos of their favorite brand logos…on their face. The brand has quite literally become part of their identity.
In college, I lifted weights regularly with my roommate. Each day after our 149th set of dumbbell curls we’d come careening out of the gym, book it home on our bikes blowing through stop signs and red lights, and then scramble up our front steps to get to our precious protein powder. In our minds, getting 20g of protein in the 20 minute window of opportunity was essential for maximum results.
High protein diets appeal to weightlifters and macho men; the primeval Paleo catches the eye of the Cross Fitters; extremists may adopt the raw food or vegan diets.
It’s all about finding ourselves in the diet and identifying with a healthy way of eating.
After all, it feels good to believe in something.
People don’t choose diets; diets choose people.
Be careful when thinking in absolutes.
Food is so important to our human identity that we have an impulse to exaggerate the goodness of the foods we most identify with.
Every diet cult has certain foods it reveres and others it abhors.
Paleos scorn anything not eaten 12000 years ago. Atkins condemns the potato. Vegans avoid animal products. Raw foodists detest anything cooked or processed. There are diets that avoid sugar, salt, and that count calories.
Despite this maelstrom of misinformation, science has not identified the best way to eat. Most foods are not absolutely good or bad; rather, their healthiness varies by context.
Each diet has good and bad attributes, and each has potential for weight loss. The idea of there being a healthiest diet is merely an illusion.
Although many diet cult followers achieve results, they don’t realize that the diet they follow is not necessary for the attainment of those results.
But in the end, people believe what they want to believe.
Losing weight is a matter of motivation, not will power or knowledge.
We don’t need more will power to lose weight. We don’t require more knowledge about nutrition or weight loss.
The missing ingredient is motivation.
As Fitzgerald writes, motivation enables us to use our will power. We already have enough will power to lose weight, but without motivation, our will power goes untapped.
Many of today’s successful dieters are yesterday’s failed dieters. They were able to attack the problem with a new-found resolve to not fail again. They didn’t gain knowledge or will power – they had a stronger purpose and greater motivation.
There are several sources of motivation. Peer pressure is an effective motivator – one that fuels the Weight Watchers program. Daily self-weighing helps you keep an eye on your progress. Also, eating monotonously and in similar varieties, quantities, and frequencies helps form better habits.
You can also set smaller goals that you can reach each day. For example, avoiding the energy drink after lunch each day or skipping the beer at night.
If you try to do too much at once and cram in every bit of minutiae about amino acids, glycemic indices, metabolism, BMIs, macros, mono/polyunsaturated fats, carb cycling, superfoods, how much magnesium is in an avocado, and the cube root of the standard deviation of your complex/simple carbohydrate ratio from last Friday, you get overwhelmed with information and lose motivation.
Small, achievable goals you can do immediately help you see progress, feel motivated, and they accumulate into a larger and more sustainable success.
I weaned myself off of 48 ounces of coffee per day with incremental steps. The first week, I downgraded from having 16 ounces three times per day to having 12 ounces three times. The next week I went to 8 ounces three times per day.
After that I focused on frequency – decreasing to twice a day, then once a day. Then I started skipping coffee one day a week, then two, three, etc. Soon I had completely kicked the psychological habit. This method works better and is easier to sustain than stopping abruptly.
Some habits are harder to leave behind than others, but our main tools are small steps and persistence.
See my post on changing habits – Switch – When Change is Hard.
Exercise is the determining factor in losing weight and keeping it off.
Although no one is immune to weight loss, some are genetically predisposed to have a difficult time. The antidote for this is simple: exercise more. Exercise daily. Increase the duration and intensity at a manageable rate.
Most importantly, don’t sit for more than 30 minutes at a time.
Like many people do after college, I abandoned the discipline I had to exercise daily. I went to the gym sporadically – maybe once every two weeks – and stayed inert for weeks at a time.
One summer, I weighed 193 pounds with around 21-22% body fat. It may not seem astronomical, but it was heavy for an ex-string bean long distance runner.
What helped me rebuild the habit of exercising was to hire a gym trainer to hold me accountable. I gradually went from working out sporadically to lifting weights six times every week and running twice a week.
I also arranged to have a standing desk at work so that I’m not sitting for eight straight hours.
Months later I’m about 168 pounds with 11% body fat.
Most importantly, I built exercise back into my lifestyle in an enjoyable and sustainable manner.
Here’s a cool article featuring advice from 15 people who have lost 50+ pounds.
- Diet: replace one unhealthy food you eat regularly with a healthier one – replace the Pop Tarts with a protein bar.
- Exercise: gradual increases in minutes or repetitions. Do 20 squats when you wake up. Walk 100 paces after eating. Do 5 push ups every hour.
- Weigh yourself daily.
- Don’t beat yourself up over one slip up. It’s about time and persistence, not immediate gratification.
***To learn more about why we diet and what we should do instead, check out Diet Cults, by Matt Fitzgerald.***
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