How Diet Choices Are Like Religious Choices: Evaluating “The Gluten Lie”

Y’all know I’m pretty passionate about science. And I care a lot about food and healthy eating choices.

Well, I’ve been reading a book called The Gluten Lie (please pay no attention to the stupid clickbait title), and although I haven’t finished it, I’m finding it interesting so far. The book is written buy a guy who studies religions, meaning he’s used to evaluating cultural beliefs and myths, and looking for patterns in those areas. He brings this interesting perspective to the field of nutrition.

What this means is that, while he does allude to scientific research, he’s not presenting rock-solid scientific arguments with tons of research studies backing up his discussion points. For example, he discusses the current cultural fad of thinking gluten is “bad” for you and that all people would be healthier avoiding gluten. While he does offer some counter-research and some investigation of why those claims probably aren’t accurate, he isn’t trying to completely dismantle the claims of people advocating low- or no-gluten diets. Instead, he explores historical context for avoiding grains and how we came to hold this belief — and he calls on the reader to acknowledge that it is, in fact, a belief, ultimately taken on faith.

Because, as he points out, nutrition research is incredibly difficult. How do you run a controlled study on what people eat? How do you get a statistically meaningful number of people to let you control every molecule of what they put into their mouths every day, probably for years? Alternatively, when you ask people to self-report what they’ve eaten, who wants to admit they ate a dozen 2″-square brownies after dinner when they could simply round down to a half-dozen 1″ brownies? Or if people aren’t intentionally lying, they aren’t remembering accurately: How many brownies was it, again? and how big were they?

So when people object to all the conflicting reports we hear about different foods — are eggs full of dangerous cholesterol, or are they actually healthful protein packages? — they’re right. Recommendations are constantly changing. That’s because, honestly, researchers don’t know. Add to this the fact that many news articles tend to take cautious scientific statements like “There was a statistically significant correlation between consumption of eggs and slightly increased HDL cholesterol, which may contribute to heart disease,” and turn it into “Eggs cause heart attacks!” and you’ve certainly got a recipe for setting the general public up for disillusionment and distrust of mainstream experts.

Okay, let’s take that, and then ask, “How do people decide what to eat?” If it’s not based on serious, rigorous science, what’s the basis for deciding what to put in our pie holes when it’s not pie?

Belief. Myth. Stories.

“You are what you eat,” for example. We scoff at the idea that eating a (ahem) part of a tiger could make a man more virile (a belief held in Asia), but we still think eating high-fat foods will make us fat. Uh, nope; that’s actually excess calories. Eating a piece of bacon or bread with real butter on it isn’t more likely to make you fat than eating an equivalent amount of other calories — at least, there’s no research demonstrating that yet.

Yet this belief that eating fat makes you fat has persisted from the time of the ancient Greeks to today. I grew up eating nonfat everything, including nonfat frozen yogurt instead of ice cream, margarine instead of butter, and seeing my parents showing every evidence of obsessively avoiding fat. And look what it’s brought us: Gross fake substitutes and mountains of guilt over indulging in “sinful pleasures.”

Oh, yes, notice the religious language there? The author points out that we use quite a few religious terms when talking about food, such as the way we talk about “good” and “bad” foods rather than “nutritious/healthy” or “non-nutritious/unhealthy” foods.

Another common belief he discusses is that food and eating were healthier in the past. He calls it the “paradise past,” where we think that the way people ate at some point in history–be it 10,000 years ago or 100–is better than today, and that people in that time lived healthier lives because of their mythical perfect diets. The funny thing is that this belief has been around for a long time. When people 100 years ago said diets need to go back to a healthier past diet, what does that mean for us today claiming that diets 100 years ago were the ideal we should strive for?

That idea of an eating “paradise past” ties in not only with the idea of the Paleo diet’s claim that we haven’t “evolved” to eat grains, but also the suspicion of “chemicals” in our food, the mistrust of GMO foods, and the whole “only use ingredients your great-grandmother would recognize” claim. (Good thing it doesn’t say “grandmother,” or else we might be going back to the 1950s era of lime Jell-O mixed with canned spinach and topped with whipped cream and grapes. It’s all green!)

He doesn’t call this out specifically, but all this got me thinking about how people really do treat food choices like a religion. Ever talked to someone who’s on the Paleo diet? They have the evangelistic zeal of a Mormon missionary: Boy do they know they’re right and want to convert you to their thinking. They aren’t alone; many people, when you scratch the surface, hold equally powerful beliefs around food. Similarly, the rules and rituals around food and the avoiding of specific foods parallels religious behavior in many ways.

Most of all, like when a person believes in a certain religion, no amount of counter-evidence is going to change the believer’s mind. They know they feel better when they cut out gluten (never mind the other lifestyle changes that may have contributed), and that’s much more powerful than a discussion of the nocebo effect and sociogenic illness. Plus, once you buy into a specific diet or food belief system, it becomes a fundamental part of how you think of yourself. It’s incredibly hard to ask someone to then evaluate that decision in a cool, rational way.

What does all this mean?

Well, I haven’t finished the book yet, so I don’t know how the author wraps it up. But it reminds me of a few things:

  1. Respect other people’s food choices, even if I think they’re ridiculous. Odds are I’m making dietary decisions on an equally flimsy foundation.
  2. Don’t worry too much about the exact foods I’m eating. Instead, eat in moderation when I’m hungry, and choose foods that have high nutritional value: Carbs for energy, protein for building muscle, and vitamins and minerals my body needs to be healthy. Try not to obsess about avoiding certain things or adding in certain things because of some study that claims sugar causes Alzheimer’s or something.
  3. Don’t try to change anyone’s mind about food. This ultimately is a matter of faith, not subject to rational analysis and evaluation. In fact, maybe food is another topic like religion and politics, best left untouched in the workplace and at family gatherings.

That’s most of what I’ve got so far. There’s more, but I’ll save it for another day. I’d love to hear what y’all think about all this.

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