Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dietary Extremism

This is a sensitive topic, as many people feel badly about their weight, body image, and dietary habits. And many people have eating disorders, in which difficult relationships with food and with body image lead to a variety of behaviours that can do severe physical and emotional harm.
In this post, I wanted to address the specific phenomenon of what I call "dietary extremism". I consider the phenomenon to be similar to dogmatic religious belief.

Dietary extremism occurs as a result of people struggling to find some change in their lives that truly makes a difference for the better. They may have tried a wide variety of "standard routes" but continue to struggle with the same problems.

Extremism can often yield results for people, because it involves a radical change in lifestyle. It is something like joining a monastery. The lifestyle becomes more sustainable because of the community of fellow extremists (the other "monks in the monastery"), and because the community sets itself apart from the mainstream. The extremist beliefs are entrenched within the community, especially when members of the community are seeing significant changes within themselves for the first time.

Yet, the beliefs themselves are often extremely dogmatic and inaccurate. While I am a fan of permanent, positive life change, I believe that we must always stay attuned with the truth, always be open-minded to hear the facts, always be willing to question and challenge, always be wary of being told what to do by a guru-like figure (who, incidentally, may be making a lot of money and enjoying a lot of attention from fans, by selling books or running retreats).

A specific example that has come to my attention is the "raw food diet". Adherents have made substantial changes to their lifestyle. And, in my opinion, they are usually healthier for it. There is quite a bit of evidence that eating more fruits & vegetables, eating less meat, eating fewer animal products, etc. is part of good self-care. Furthermore, it is better for the environment, better to address world hunger (since raising animals instead of plants on agricultural land produces less nutritional energy per acre), and more humane (fewer sentient creatures need to be killed).

But most informational tracts about "raw food" are filled with claims that sound "scientific". The use of false or misleading pseudo-scientific claims is a typical tool used in charlatanism. This is one of the pathways that makes this potentially healthy dietary idea stultified by dogma. If you encounter statements about various types of nutritional degradation caused by heating, or about the miraculous virtues of some kind of oil (e.g. coconut oil), or about the advantages of choosing foods that are "less acidic", etc. I encourage you to be aware that there may be some dogmatic, charismatic salesmanship going on. The fact that these statements sound "scientific" may simply be fooling you. If you really want to know the truth, or what the evidence shows, then I think it is important to look closely yourself, at primary sources in reputable research journals.

The concern I have about the dogma doesn't necessarily mean that I think "raw food" (or some other diet) is a bad thing. I think it is a cultural practice, which has healthy aspects to it. Like other cultural practices, there may be a well-developed estheticism within it, leading, for example, to some really good recipes with raw food ingredients. The cultural practice crosses the line, though, into dogmatism, when it pronounces itself better than all other practices, and starts to support this claim using spurious or misleading information. All the while, many people are probably making quite a profit by marketing these ideas.

One of the phenomena often described in extremist groups is a collection of testimonial accounts from people whose lives have been radically changed for the better (e.g. cured of cancer, reached their ideal weight, felt healthy for the first time in their lives, etc.). While it may well be true that these individuals are genuinely thriving as a result of their new cultural practice, the mechanism of this change may be the result of very different factors than what they believe. Most any radical life change that leads to a sense of purpose, community, consistency, and meaning can have a transformative positive effect on an individual's health. I encourage such quests for purpose, community, and meaning -- but I encourage people to keep an open mind and to avoid dogma.

There are some good journals of scientific nutrition, such as the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and others. Abstracts are available on-line for free, and you can search on medical databases for information. Once again I encourage you to explore the evidence first-hand. When you read a claim about the nutritional virtues about this or that food, or this or that diet, be aware that you may be reading an ad, or an "info-mercial", and be prepared to search further yourself to clarify this kind of information before you make a needless change in your health behaviours.

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