Blog Post

When Dieting Becomes a Religion

woman saladSR writes: "The new fad seems to be that everyone seems to be on some kind of diet.  (I.e.  Paleo diet or Gluten free, Atkins, etc. I understand if someone is diagnosed with Celiac Disease or Gluten intolerances, it makes sense and would be prudent to eliminate gluten, but it seems that more and more people are on diets because they are desperate to lose weight.  In some cases I feel some people turn these diets into a "religion". Are they any diets we should avoid (that are New Age?)  

"What are some signs or behaviors we should avoid that may be indicating that a diet is becoming a "religion", New Age, or against Catholic teachings? I have to humbly admit that I sometimes feel that I should be on some diet because apparently the rest of the world is on one and they seem to have all the "evidence" to back it up.  How do you know which diets are safe?"

I agree that some people can take dieting to heights that go beyond this realm and actually make a kind of "golden calf" out of their adherence to a particular way of eating.

But, as author Ellen Frankel, intimates in this article, this could be masking a different kind of idol.

"I know people who will tell you every health reason for every morsel they put in their mouths or refuse to put in their mouths," Frankel writes. "They can talk about it for hours. Yet almost invariably, within the conversation their ultimate desire for weight loss is revealed. I'm not arguing about weight loss per se, but about how often this cultural dietary obsession is merely another version of bowing down to the false god of idealizing thinness as saintliness. Instead of bowing down to the golden calf, they are bowing down to the green kale."

Are there "New Age" diets to avoid? Perhaps the closest thing to a New Age diet that I've seen would be the macrobiotics diet.  This diet is based on the work of Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland (1762 – 1836) who was a firm believer in the wholly New Age idea of a “life force” that he claimed was present in everything and that can be weakened or strengthened through external forces such as the diet.

MD002335Shonaalii Sabherwal, a certified Consultant and Chef at The Kushi Institute, claims that macrobiotic diets can clean up the blood and cell structure, thus forcing imbalances out of the body.

Macrobiotics is the answer, she says. "It takes us back to eating the way we ate when we first came on the planet. That is not to say you should eat raw food. The whole thing is about the energy of food. We believe that by cooking the food, we actually get the energy out of the fuel, from the fire that you cook it on. But again, it depends. We go by Yin and Yang. . . .

"In the macrobiotic approach, food is considered to be energy as it affects our minds, emotions, physical states and even spirituality. Every vegetable has its own dynamics. A round vegetable like a turnip, for example, has contracted, gathered energy as opposed to a spring onion which has upward, rising and expansive energy. If you eat a steak which is very Yang or contracted, you will naturally also be attracted to foods with the opposite quality of energy. So you will probably eat the steak with potatoes, alcohol, or a sugary dessert which are extremely Yin."

Of course, none of this is scientifically supported.

Nor are cleanses and detox diets which are also a favorite of the New Age crowd. These diets are supposed to help rid the body of pesticides and other chemical pollutants that are stored in our body fat.

While this is true, "there's no evidence that a detox regimen, which works on the GI [gastrointestinal] tract, is going to do anything to get rid of those stored pesticides," said Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, RD, associate dean of the College of Health and Human Sciences and professor of nutrition at Georgia State University in Atlanta to WebMD.

Rosenbloom says a healthy body doesn't need any help ridding itself of toxins. "There's no reason to do any kind of detoxification. The toxins don't need to be forced out by some kind of fasting or laxative or enema regimen."

In fact, some measures -- such as colonics -- "can actually be dangerous, because you're introducing something foreign into your body that could cause infection or perforation of your bowel," Rosenbloom said.

The best way to "detox" is to avoid the toxins altogether by eating more organic food, drinking purified water, and avoiding second-hand smoke.

Because New Age is more of a social movement based on ancient concepts drawn from Eastern religious traditions and themes such as holism, concern for nature, spirituality and metaphysics, the "New Age" in a diet plan may be more of an attitude than a prescribed ritual. For instance, New Agers tend to favor certain kinds of foods such as organics and soy products but this doesn't make these foods "New Age".

"Concerns about your ties to the universe are different than worrying about your figure," writes  T.A. Ten Eyck of Michigan State University in his article "The New Age Consumer."

"If the purpose of a diet is to become one with Mother Nature, that is one thing and could be considered New Age. A diet which is adopted for the purpose of catching the eyes of the new, attractive coworker, on the other hand, is not New Age -- it is about the self and not the community."

The best sign that a person is beginning to make their diet into a religion is when they become rigid and unbending in its application. It becomes a kind of obsession that begins to control other aspects of their life, such as their relationship with others or attentiveness to their vocation in life.

As for where to go to find good healthy diets, I follow a customized combination of Weight Watchers and the Sonoma Diet that I made up myself and seems to keep my weight under control. The Mediterranean diet also gets rave reviews. All of the above are scientifically tested and valid diets.

US News and World Reports publishes a ranking of diets every year. Click here for the latest report.