Diets Are a Lot Like Religion

Photo: Roman Marzinger/Corbis

A version of an old joke goes like this: How do you know if someone is Paleo? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you. Not to pick on Paleo eaters; you can easily swap in just about any other diet and the joke works just the same. The enthusiasm some people have for the way they eat can sometimes seem a lot like religious fervor, complete with heartfelt conversion stories and earnest attempts at proselytizing. And that’s no coincidence, argues Alan Levinovitz, a professor of religion at James Madison University and the author of the new book The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths About What You Eat — understanding the way people think about faith goes a long way toward understanding the way people think about food. 

The more Levinovitz looked into it, the more parallels he discovered between religious and dietary beliefs, going as far back as the ancient Chinese texts that are his scholarly specialty. “Two thousand years ago, there were these Daoist monks who decided that if you avoided these five grains — and these were the staple crops of China, what the everyday person subsisted on — you’d live forever, you wouldn’t get any diseases,” Levinovitz said. These monks also came up with intricate recipes for nutritional supplements, which they then distributed with similarly spectacular promises of immortality. “I’m looking at this and I’m thinking, You know, this sounds a lot like the kinds of promises that modern, secular so-called diet gurus make to their followers,” Levinovitz said.

Crucially, Levinovitz isn’t arguing that everyone who sticks to a diet is kidding themselves. There are many, many people — with Celiac disease and without — who’ve experienced physical and mental improvements after they’ve stopped consuming gluten. (For that matter, there are many people whose lives have been sincerely changed for the better through the church.) “I am so sympathetic to them — I wish they were not marginalized, and I wish they were not mocked,” Levinovitz said. In his view, the trouble starts when one given becomes popular and the people who are truly benefiting from it start to blur with the people who’ve simply jumped on the bandwagon.

What accounts for this bandwagon effect? Levinovitz has found that there’s something about the concepts of diet and nutrition that brings out people’s more credulous instincts. In his research, he’s found that “when it came to diet and health, people were prone to irrationality and they were susceptible to promises that in other contexts perhaps they’d be more critical [of],” he said. Note the past tense he uses there. This isn’t a modern phenomenon; it’s a human one.

Levinovitz recently chatted with Science of Us about some of the surprising connections between food and faith:

There’s something comforting about picking a plan out of the chaos and sticking with it.
Religion helps people make sense of a chaotic world: Suddenly, there is order, and there are instructions. All you have to do is follow them. “You have a certainty about the choices you make,” Levinovitz said. “That gives you a way to make decisions, and it makes for a comforting world.” Likewise, nutrition science is a chaotic discipline. Eggs are bad for you until they’re not; MSG is a dangerous food additive until it’s not. It’s understandable why people would pick a way of eating and then stick to their guns; it gives them some solid ground to stand on amid ever-shifting recommendations.

But what about when diets aren’t comforting? Many of them, after all, suggest worlds in which modern life is overflowing with toxins, even in safe-seeming foods — shouldn’t these beliefs be aversive rather than attractive? Not so, said Levinovitz. He used the Food Babe, the very popular food blogger who sees terrifying chemicals everywhere — and who is frequently wrong in her doomsaying — as an example. “One thing I realized — why would you want to live in a world filled with toxins? Why would you follow the Food Babe — isn’t that a terrifying world to live in?” Levinovitz said. You could easily make the same statement about religion: Why would you want to believe in a world where humans are inherently sinful creatures? The idea sounds upsetting from a nonreligious perspective. “But it’s not. It’s a comforting one … The only thing scarier than a world full of toxins is a world in which you don’t know what the toxins are.” If the choice is a nuanced, complicated understanding of the world that contains some uncertainty or a more clear-cut and sharply defined approach, the latter vision is often going to win out.

The idea that “past is paradise” is an alluring one.
Think of one of the most famous Biblical stories, the Garden of Eden. “We were all extremely happy and healthy — well, all two of us — and then we ate the wrong food … and we fell from grace,” Levinovitz said. The Eden story provides an apt narrative structure for “demonizing foods of modernity,” as he phrases it. Paleo enthusiasts, for example, strongly believe that to return to the caveman’s pre-agricultural diet is the most natural way of eating. The narrative is easily applied to some of the major objections many people have about genetically engineered foods, too — the idea that using modern technology to alter the foods we eat is new and, subsequently, unnatural or something to be feared.

And maybe going Paleo works for you, or your issues with genetically modified crops go beyond being squicked out by mixing tech with the things you eat. The point, Levinovitz said, is that it’s important to untie that “past as paradise” narrative from the scientific evidence. (Really, this is a point that can be applied over and over again when talking about the common themes between diet and religion.)

The vocabulary we use for food has strong undertones of morality.
Think of the words we use to talk about the things we eat: guilt, sinful, “cheat” days, designating foods as “good” or “bad” for you. It’s not the newest observation, but it’s one that came up again and again when Levinovitz was researching his book, clicking down into the depths of healthy-eating message boards. Many people, he said, wrote about cheating or confessing in anguished terms. “I would literally see the word redeem,” he said. “It’s like, no, your diet is not your spouse — you don’t have to confess that you cheated on your diet. But I see people who come to believe that what you eat is so ethically charged, that they are like committing terrible sins” if they mess up. “It’s this idea that if you sin once it’s the end,” he said.

Aligning yourself with a popular way of eating gives you a sense of belonging.
A few years ago, I switched to a vegetarian diet (for ethical, not health, reasons — as I pointed out to a group of friends shortly after making the switch, beer and French fries were technically a vegetarian meal). One of the things I’ve been surprised about is that changing the way I eat essentially came with membership to a secret club I didn’t know about. I’ve become close with a group of vegetarian and vegan friends, and together we’ve formed an unofficial food club: We try vegetarian restaurants around the city and take turns hosting vegetarian potlucks. If I went back to eating meat, I would no longer quite belong in the group.

It’s given me a sense of belonging, in other words, an idea that can certainly apply to devout churchgoers. “I think you’re right about the identity thing being super, super important to the persistence and the vehemence of which people defend their chosen diet,” Levinovitz said. He’s said he’s toyed with the idea of vegetarianism himself, also for ethical reasons. “And I wonder if I found out that more animals died in the wheat thresher than if I were to just eat local meat — I wouldn’t want to hear that,” he said. (And neither would I, frankly.) The point is that, though a sense of belonging is an undeniably wonderful thing — there are plenty of people who enjoy tremendous benefits from belonging to a church or synagogue, even if they don’t believe in all of the theological details — people still “shouldn’t allow investment in their identity to get in the way of processing information.”

But there might be a straightforward way to untangle faith from fact when it comes to food.
The answer, appropriately, is itself inspired by a healthy-eating trend: It’s time to detox. “Don’t read anything about nutrition or health for 30 days,” Levinovitz suggested. Don’t visit the blogs, don’t click the headlines, don’t even read food labels. Instead, focus on preparing foods for yourself that make you feel good and that you enjoy. “People like to say that sugar is addictive — well, maybe health information is also addictive, in a very broad sense of the word.”