Are Fad Diets Basically the Same Thing As Cults?

We’ve all heard about cults: A charismatic person tells you what you want to hear, either together in a group or through their propaganda. They appeal to you by saying they’re the only ones who can help you accomplish your goals, fulfill your needs, and make your life better. You are emotionally manipulated into following them and being devoted to the person’s ideas or cause, without exception. Typically, we don’t regard cults with a positive connotation.

You’re nodding your head yes. Those cult leaders and the people that follow them are nuts, right?

Now that we’ve confirmed cults’ characteristics, let’s talk about something eerily similar to cults – diets. Didn’t expect that comparison, did you?  

Think about it. Some charming spokesperson convinces you (via television or in print) to follow their diet. Theirs, they swear, will get you the result you want, something no other diet can do for you, better than any other way of eating you ever tried. You believe that adhering to the diet will get you the life you’ve always dreamed of. So you follow their diet faithfully because you desperately want the results the diet promises.

Did that hit a little close to home?

diets and cults

How diets are like cults

For our purposes on aSweatLife.com, we’ve started defining “diets” as any time you make a change in how you eat for the purpose of weight loss. Similarly, we use “diet culture” to mean a belief that thinness is a moral virtue and thinness is health. Therefore, it’s worth doing anything to achieve that status and when you get to that status, you’ll be happier and healthier.

Now that we’ve got those baseline definitions out of the way, how does our definition of a diet line up with that of a cult?

“The dieting mindset functions as a system of religious reverence towards a set of food rules and restrictions to live by,” said Jamie Lopez, MS, RDN, CDN. “If you eat and work out a certain way, it’ll result in achieving the ‘ideal’ body size, and health is only attainable for those who have the proper self-control and determination. There’s a devotion to thinness (and the male gaze) when you’re dieting.”  

 “When you break a food rule, it’s common to experience an overwhelming sense of guilt and shame that leads to a ritual of penance,” Lopez continues. “Pleasure and satisfaction are forbidden, and giving in to your cravings is a sign of weakness. You’re told to lower your sense of worth down to the number on the scale.”

Wow, diets really are like cults, huh?

Cults and dieting both take so much from your life

When you’re in a cult, the leader controls their followers every moment of every day. Your life is not your own. Though you may not live with others on your diet, being on a diet affects you deeply.

“Diets and the obsession of wellness are mentally draining and distract us from exploring ourselves more deeply,” Lopez said. “The diet mentality takes us further away from self-acceptance and leads many down a road of eating and personality disorders.” 

Diet programs manipulate you into believing that their food products or recommended way of eating is the only way to achieve what you desire. But that is all carefully chosen advertising aimed directly at those desperate for results. 

“Diets that sell their own food products have mastered marketing that makes many people believe their products are healthier for you than the whole foods that are sold at our local grocery. Diets overcomplicate healthy eating so you feel the need to pay them to solve the problems they create,” Lopez said. 

One good similarity between diets and cults

One positive element of both diets and cults is that they offer affiliation or attachment to others.

Matt Fitzgerald, author of Diet Cults: The Surprising Fallacy at the Core of Nutrition Fads and a Guide to Healthy Eating for the Rest of Us and creator of the Diet Quality Score app, said, “There are social elements of diet cults that do serve a purpose. They allow people to make an emotional connection.”

Fitzgerald combined the two terms in his book. “I define a diet cult as any rule-bound way of eating that is morally based, identity forming, community building, and viewed by its followers as superior to other ways of eating. People think they follow particular diets entirely for health reasons. In reality, they too derive a sense of identity and moral superiority from them.” 

Influencers will never stop trying to create the next “best” diet. How do we battle this? 

So what can we as individuals and society do to stop the reverence of the all-mighty diet and to show that following a diet is like following a cult? 

“Bring awareness to the manipulation of dieting and encourage self-reflection,” Lopez said. “Ask yourself questions like: How much of your brain space is taken up by food and body thoughts? What are your dietary influences? Do you trust your body to tell you what and when to eat? Or, do you give all your power of autonomy to diets?”

These are pretty important and thought-provoking questions for chronic dieters.

Fitzgerald offers a question for those who feel superior with the particular diet they follow.

 “A defining feature of spiritual cults is their self-representation as the One True Way to attain salvation. This feature has a perfect parallel in diet cults, which present themselves as the one true way to attain maximum health. If you want to know if you’re a member of a diet cult, ask yourself this: Do I believe that my way of eating is clearly the healthiest possible way to eat? If you answer ‘yes,’ you’re in a diet cult,” he said.

We know that cults don’t bring about the results that the follower is looking for. Cults simply give a manipulative leader a following, people who hang on their every word and probably line the leader’s pockets with money. Similarly, diet companies or programs are certainly not looking out for your well-being. They’re not a sustainable way to eat for the rest of your life, and are most certainly trying to take your money.

How can we stop going on diets? 

“The best way to overcome the food and body obsession and loosen the chains of dieting is to start a mindfulness practice,” Lopez said. “That can look like guided meditation, prayer, moments of self-reflection, breathing exercises, mindful movement, and even a yoga practice. Mindfulness is a tool to help us bring more attention to our thoughts and behavior, especially around food and body. It creates a space for mindset shifts towards body positivity or neutrality and further away from body shame.”

Do you still feel good about the cult you’re in – I mean, the diet you’re on? Please stop giving some influencer your expectations, money, and devotion. Instead, take the energy you give to the diet and look more closely at the role food plays in your life, as well as altering any negative thoughts about your body.

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About Ronni Robinson

Ronni is a member of the Sandwich Generation; she's the tired lunch meat layered between two teenage children and aging parents. She has been an endurance athlete for over 20 years, is 3-time Ironman finisher, and is a certified spin instructor. She is in shock that she has just become an empty nester. Her first book, Out of the Pantry: A Disordered Eating Journey, can be found on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. You can find more of her professional writing on her website (https://www.ronnirobinson.com/) and her Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/RonniRobinsonwrites/).

1 thought on “Are Fad Diets Basically the Same Thing As Cults?

  1. “A defining feature of spiritual cults is their self-representation as the One True Way to attain salvation. This feature has a perfect parallel in diet cults, which present themselves as the one true way to attain maximum health.” Yup! 100% relatable article! Thank you.

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