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Diet dogma. Everyone wants to avoid it and generally we all think that we are. But it seems no dietary regimen comes without adherents that get a little too fundamentalist and authoritarian. While it's so common as to become a trope within the vegan community, Keto, Paleo and Carnivore diet communities seem to have their fair share of fundies, too.

Apparently no one is entirely free of this tendency of the human condition toward tribalism and in-group bias. It's an uglier side of human psychology, but it seems that even something as innocuous as what we choose to eat can bring out this inherent "us vs. them" mentality.

Join us on this episode of Objective:Health as we look into the phenomenon of diet dogmatism, exploring the psychology of identifying (too strongly) with what we choose to eat.

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Running Time: 00:28:42

Download: MP3 — 25.8 MB

Here's the transcript of the show:

Doug: Hello, and welcome to Objective Health. I am your host Doug, and with me are my co-hosts Elliot and Erica. In the background, on the wheels of steel, as usual, the one and only Damian.


Doug: Today, we are going to be talking about diet dogmatism. This came up because we were talking about a member of a couple of different carnivore groups and different types of groups on Facebook and I had noticed that there seems to be a dogmatic edge coming into the carnivore community. Maybe it isn't coming in, maybe it has been there for a while, but what really struck me was -- I'll tell a story.

There was somebody who posted a picture of going to a kebab shop and they got a whole container full of meat, but the meat had some sauce on it. The person was posting going "look at this! It's all meat! I can eat out of this restaurant!" There were a number of comments on there that were bashing this guy for putting sauce on it. A number of the comments were saying 'take it easy, that's still a 99% meat meal'. There's an edge to it where people are so ready to attack anybody who deviates a little bit from the rules.

I was just thinking that these people sound like vegans. That led us into a conversation and we were starting to talk about diet dogmatism which is what led us to this show. To start things off, we have got a little bit of a PSA from JP Sears that we wanted to play:

JP Sears: I advise everyone to eat the same diet. My nutritional philosophy is the perfect fit for all people because all people are the same. When someone accidentally gets healthy eating a different diet than what I recommend, they're just wrong.

What do indigenous eskimos from Alaska who eat mostly whale and caribou meat have in common with indigenoius Peruvians who eat mostly plants? Everything! They are exactly the same. Their natural environments are just wrong for supplying them with different foods. That's what they have in common.

You know how all animals in nature basically eat the same thing? It's natural. That's what people should do. We should all eat according to what our unique body needs? Really? That's highly unlikely, highly illogical, a little bit offensive and highly not good for my business of selling one diet plan to all people. [laughter]

Doug: JP has always got a good take on those kinds of things. That's kind of the point. It seems like these diets get constructed around these rules and anybody who deviates from those rules is considered a heretic. You are disobeying the rules. It's almost like the dietary dogma has been set down as the word of God, the Ten commandments, Thou shalt not etc..

It goes so counter to what it seems like what we should be doing with our diets where you should be experimenting and seeing what works for you. What do you feel good on? What do you not feel good on? It's completely counter to the idea that there is a set of dogmatic rules that have to be followed no matter what.

Elliot: Indeed. You tend to see this in multiple different groups which follow different diets and it seems to be fairly common. Something I have also noticed is that it tends to be more pronounced at the extreme ends of the diet spectrum. The more extreme and the more restrictive the diet the more that this tends to rear its ugly head. I guess a lot of the time the reason someone is going on a highly restrictive diet is because they have the belief that that is necessary for them to become healthy and in some cases it might be.

Then, at the same time, when you have these kinds of groups of highly restrictive dieters, you also tend to get individuals that I think float towards that. It seems that it develops like a religious fervour. Rather than people acknowledging that their dietary choices are beneficial for them and likely can be used as a tool to improve health, it becomes more of an identity thing. Rather than someone just following a diet because they want to become healthy, it rather becomes part of their identity. So they are not someone who follows the diet, the diet is part of how they perceive themselves and how they want to be perceived to others.

An example of this is that if you go on instagram and you look at any of the well-known vegan influencers many of them will often have "vegan" in their description. It's a very basic example. Vegan is part of their description and that is how they want to be identified by others. As part of the veganism, there also comes a variety of other characteristics that other vegans tend to display and so this is what makes up how they want to be viewed by others and perhaps how they perceive themselves.

When that happens, it seems as though it is a bit of a rocky road. It is quite dangerous because it can lead to a situation where people can become very rigid in their approach to health, in their approach to supporting others to achieve health. I think it becomes quite unhealthy in many ways.

Erica: I also think that psychologically it is a control issue. I'm speaking more from the vegan/vegetarian experience. I was a vegan years ago and a vegetarian and there is this whole idea that you are so in control of everything food-wise. Then, pushing that on other people and judging and virtue signalling and all that.

It becomes, like you were saying Elliot, this whole identity. It gets to being almost neurotic in a crazy sense. I feel like a lot of that is because maybe people just don't have control over other parts of their lives so they feel "If I can control everything I eat and I can have a stance on it then maybe I can have a little bit of personal agency in the world."

I think that's a slippery slope because all of a sudden you are sharing with everyone and then it becomes egotistical too. You go to a pardy and say "I don't eat that" or "You didn't accommodate my dietary restrictions". I agree with you both that it has gotten to the point, especially on social media, where it is bizarro world. What is going on? The whole vegan thing, now, they hate on farming.

There was just an article out saying "save the planet by destroying farming." by George Monbiot. He wants to eat lab-grown meat and he wants to be a vatitarian but he wants to get rid of farming. Are you serious? That's your platform!? I think it speaks to a lot of people's mental state too. Obviously food affects your mental state - this is bizarro world. I don't know what to think anymore, I just find it entertaining.

Doug: In any of these groups - and that includes vegans, carnivores, keto and paleo - you have these authoritarian individuals. I think different groups have a different ratio of authoritarianism, though I would wager a guess that the vegans are probably the highest.

You do have people in all of these groups too who are a lot more reasonable and they are trying to solve health issues or something along those lines. They are making their way and figuring things out. They are like "ok, the carnivore thing is working for me for now" but they might want to introduce some plants at some point, maybe some fruit or something. I have seen some people who say that they will eat berries when they are in season.

We don't want to paint it like if you are adhering to a diet then you are dogmatic because I don't think that that's true. It just seems to be that there is an element which is a wider aspect of human psychology,.that there are people out there who when they get enthusiastic about something or are interested in something, it does become a part of their identity.

You especially see the uglier side of it when they form a group and say "Right, I'm a vegan and this person is a vegan. Therefore we're like brothers. We're fellow acolytes.,We are vegans together." If anybody ends up leaving one of those groups, that's when you really see the ugliness of it, all the smears. "You were never really vegan. You failed on the diet because you were doing it wrong" etc. etc. It is almost like a religious cult kind of thing. "You are no longer one of us therefore I hate you and now you are dead to me."

Elliot: Yes. In many cases that dynamic that goes on is understood by many as the darker side of veganism or something that typically shows up in these vegan communities. It doesn't serve people well for us to define it in that way. I often see that in conversation people will refer to this kind of thing as "Stop being like a vegan." By doing that it is very much opening up the possibility of missing it in ourselves and missing other forms of it if it is not related to that particular topic - in this case veganism.

Essentially, I think that really touched upon the main point here. It's tapping into a very primal aspect of human psychology; it probably goes way beyond cognitive abilities. It's on a much more primitive base-level, probably related to the primitive parts of our brains. Human beings tend toward tribalism and this can divide us in any aspect of life, especially these days. There are so many polarising factors. It can be your religious views, it can be your political views, it can be your views on any given topic.

In this case it applies just the same to diet and nutrition. When we fall into these tribal groups, it can dehumanise anyone who doesn't fit into that group. At the same time it produces strange hierarchical dynamics or weird dynamics that go on inside the group and it can really affect how we perceive what we are doing, and in relation to the diet, what we are eating. It can force people to become very rigid in the way that they view things.

I don't know if it would technically fall under the definition of an ideology, but I guess in many respects it can be likened to an ideology in that people view the world through a particular lens and everything that they see can be explained through that lens. So in the context of health, any health condition or any improvement in health or worsening in health can be viewed through the lens of that particular dietary ideology and therefore all solutions provided for said problem are based on that dietary ideology.

Let me give you an example. If for instance someone is a fruitarian, the way that they perceive health is that human beings are fundamentally designed to only ingest fruit and if they ingest anything else they become acidic and they become unhealthy; therefore, they are perceiving everything through that lens whether its based on a bunch of false information or not. If you go into these weird fruitarian groups then what you will see is that when someone is displaying some kind of health problem, people will tell them it is simply because they are not eating enough fruit or they have not done enough juicing or they are still detoxifying animal products.

Doug: Yeah.

Elliot: Then on the other side of the spectrum, in the carnivore group if someone displays with a genuine health concern, yet they are met with the same kind of thing: people viewing it through the lens that human beings are only designed to eat meat and therefore, the person is experiencing health problems simply because they added a condiment to their meat, or they are not eating enough fat, or they are not eating enough meat, or they should only be drinking water and not lemon water or something absolutely silly like that.

The point that I'm trying to get across -- I hope this makes sense -- is that when we become married or wedded to these kinds of ideological ways of viewing things -- these rigid, almost religious way of viewing our diet and our health -- then we can potentially be doing a disservice to other people and ourselves. We are not acknowledging the truth of the situation where people are different and there is not one size that fits all.

Doug: I see that in the carnivore groups, especially in their approach to supplementation. They are really against it. They firmly. 100% believe that everything you could ever need will come from meat. I think that at one time on the planet that was probably true. Obviously, there are cultures that only eat meat and they got everything that they needed from meat but the idea that you should not try to solve any of your problems with supplements or even medications to a certain point, I think there are always situation that will call for these sorts of things, and to have somebody who is doing fine on the carnivore diet, cruising along and have never had any kind of issues, telling other people who are clearly having issues, that they should not do supplements, that they should not go and see a doctor, that they should not do this and that they should not do that, is dangerous, for one thing.

It is so rigid and so dogmatic that I think that they are going to be turning people away because people are going to take a look at them and think, "Oh, these guys are just meat vegans. It's the same thing only with a different diet."

Elliot: Yes, that seems to be the case. Those two extremes - two opposite ends of the spectrum. There are a lot of rigid mindsets which develop in any dietary template. As it happens, it seems that the more restrictive diets tend to be the more religious it seems. But actually you have this in the keto world as well. If someone is not responding well to a ketogenic diet then it is simply because they are doing it wrong, they must be cheating on the diet.

There are clinics who treat people with this kind of diet and if someone does not respond the way that they want them to respond, then the patient will be told that they have been doing it incorrectly because their body should have responded differently. It seems like people are missing out or are potentially being given advice which is damaging their health, or they are following advice to the detriment to themselves simply because they are wedded to this mindset.

Doug: It is a dangerous situation too because in a lot of cases people are going to these kinds of extremes because they are desperate. They need help! Their health is not good and they will look and see other people who are apparently doing very well on these diets so they try to emulate that kind of thing. When they don't see these kinds of results, not only are they really disheartened themselves, a lot of times it seems that there is a lot of resistance too when they will post and say "Hey listen, I'm having some problems here. What do you think?" and a lot of times they'll get flack from other people because anybody fails on that diet, that's a strike against the diet which they have completely identified with. If there is anything that would slightly suggest that their diet isn't perfect and that it isn't for everyone then it is met with hostility.

Elliot: It's a very difficult situation to witness and it is important to identify it in ourselves as well. It is like this tendency towards tribalism is present in all human beings and it can manifest in some really horrible ways, some terrible ways if you look through our history. In every aspect of our life it is important to try to identify where we are falling into these rigid views, becoming hostage to these polarising factors and always trying to reassess that, reassess where we are, where we stand on something and try to remain, I won't say impartial. It's good to be opinionated about certain things, but ultimately not to fall into these rigid mindsets.

I have been wondering about the fundamental reason why human beings do this and why it's so easy for us to fall into these kinds of rigid ideologies. It's a really complicated question. I think Jordan Peterson would be able to explain it in the best way. To some extent, it's comfortable, it's trying to find certainty in an uncertain world. There is so much that isn't certain, especially if someone has some real bad health condition and they are searching for answers. These ideologies are attractive and they are attractive because they tick all the boxes. They can provide a solution for all of the problems. When you adopt that way of looking at things it can explain all of the problems and it can explain why you feel the way that you feel. There is no room for uncertainty.

In the carnivore movement -- the reason why I keep bringing this one up is because it seems to be really gaining traction at the moment -- there's many of the proponents that will have people believe that it is the one and only way because it is the one and only diet that human beings are designed to eat. When you hear that, that is a very attractive thing. It makes loads of sense. But unfortunately, in the real world it doesn't tend to work like that. It's complex and it's nuanced and people respond in different ways. I guess that is uncomfortable. That's chaos. It's uncertainty. I guess human beings tend to shy away from that kind of stuff.

Doug: Yes, I think you have a very good point there. When you were talking, it reminded me that we all have to be like the ideal scientist. I think even most scientists don't actually adhere to this very well, not to remain wedded to any theory, any hypothesis, any idea. The idea of science is that it will always remain open. There is no such thing as settled science.

You have to be ready to throw a theory away if contradictory evidence comes along. We have to maintain that ourselves with our diets, with our political opinions, with everything. You can't be completely wedded to any one thing because the truth isn't going to be in any one thing. I don't think that we have the ability to perceive the truth as it is. So we can always get closer but only if we don't get completely identified with where we are right now.

I think that in the diet it is the same kind of thing, you have got to maintain an open mind and be open to new information, see how other people are doing it and if they are doing it differently that doesn't mean they are out of the group, that means let's see, let's see how they do.

Erica: It's really that idea that every body is different and what works for you or Elliot may not work for me. Be open to that possibility instead of holding this belief system that's going to continue to drive you down this road that may result in your negative health. I'll never forget reading the book by Lierre Keith The Vegetarian Myth. I was a vegitarian and I read that book and after that I was no longer a vegetarian. {laughter} It was one of those eye opening aspects of learning something and then actually applying the knowledge to your life.

I was like "Everybody I know is a vegetarian, all my friends, what are they going to think?" It wasn't working out so let's try a new strategy, let's try a new experiment. Let's see how this works. Again, everyone is different.

Doug: Is there anything else we wanted to talk about on that topic?

Erica: I think people should really observe the way that they feel. We have talked in the past about having a food journal and writing what doesn't make you feel well and what does. Also, try and stay off social media. The vegan thing is just everywhere now and I'm like gosh this hasn't died yet? I feel like we were doing shows about this a year ago. It's almost like a new movie comes out or some new thing and all of a sudden everyone is like "maybe we should eat plant based." It just keeps circling around again and again. That doesn't mean that things have gotten better, it just means it has come around again to try and swoop more people in the process.

Doug: Maybe. I have to give credit to Sean Baker who I think I saw a tweet from. I'm almost positive I saw it from him, although I was looking for it today before the show and I couldn't find it. He said something along the lines of "Guys, take it easy. Stop trying to call out people who aren't doing carnivore the way that you think it should be done. If somebody is eating 80% meat they're there, ok? So just drop it. They are with us. Stop yelling at people for putting a little bit of ketchup on their steak."

I think that's our show for this week. Thanks very much for joining us everybody. Thanks to the host, thanks to Damian. Be sure to like and subscribe. If you enjoy our content, we do one of these every week. Share the video too if you feel so inclined. We will talk to you next week everybody.