Book Review–Diet Cults: The surprising fallacy at the core of nutrition fads and a guide to healthy eating for the rest of us, Matt Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald isn’t a science writer, and I don’t know how evidence-based this book qualifies as. He discusses science, but it’s in the popular, journalistic narrative sort of way rather than in the accumulation of data over time with critique and drawbacks sort of way that a more science-minded author would likely do.

In any case, the premise of the book is that most dietary advice falls into one of two camps, and both are making incorrect assumptions and contribute to the human tendency to identify their tribe with food rules and restrictions. Fitzgerald states he wants to create a new nutritional tribe, a tribe of food agnostics, who reject arbitrary, nonscientific food rules in favor of goals towards good health and happy living.

This is a goal I can get behind, and if you’ve been around here for a while, you’ll know his issues with pseudoscience and food advice land on friendly ears as I listen to the audiobook. I appreciate his willingness to call diets out as unscientific, over-hyped, and leading to ultimately poor outcomes for the people who get roped into believing in them. The most enjoyable parts of the book for me were the sections debunking raw foods veganism and the paleo diet. I think folks need to see the commonalities of these sorts of food philosophies, despite the vast difference in the dietary outcomes, in order to armor themselves from future extreme diet recruitment efforts.

And if that’s where this book settled, documenting the commonalities found in dietary bullshit, I would enthusiastically recommend it.

Unfortunately, woven throughout these arguments is a pervasive fattist and fat-phobic message. When discussing his own weight gain in the past, he openly calls it disgusting. There’s a long discussion about how losing weight boils down to having enough motivation, and while he acknowledges in one sentence the many genetic factors influence our decision making, in the next he states that successful weight losers just “wanted it badly enough.” This whole section is especially odd as he seems to wrestle with acknowledging that it’s a sensitive topic and could be seen as blaming people for their body size, but then he goes on to reinforce messaging of personal responsibility and choice.

Fitzgerald also embraces food moralizing language like “good” foods and “bad” foods, although I suppose in his defense, maybe there’s air quotes that I can’t read in audiobook format, even while the purpose of the book is to argue against food rules. The last chapter of the book details Fitzgerald’s own food advice, which he calls guidelines, but it’s hard to not notice how detailed they are. The last twenty minutes of the audiobook was listing foods in order of preference from most recommended to least. And some of the recommendations and preferences, like ranking organic, free-range beef as healthier than conventional beef, reinforces dietary privilege and doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

I have read many authors and listened to many nutrition experts who have found more helpful language when identifying foods that may help someone more easily reach their goals. It needn’t be a list of foods to avoid and a list of foods to eat. There’s the 80/20 people who talk about finding a balance between treat foods and more health-promoting foods. There’s folks like those at Balance 365 and Precision Nutrition who use continuums. And plenty just talk about focusing on how the foods make you feel, which you find the most satisfying and satiating, and let you create your own routines based upon your unique data. Any of these approaches would embrace a truly more “food agnostic” philosophy. By repeatedly using moralizing language, including referring to some foods as garbage at one point, Fitzgerald reveals the work he still has to do to remove himself from a food cult, or what I would call diet culture. At the end of the book, when he lays out his recommendations for his “agnostic healthy diet,” he clearly states that he doesn’t have any “forbidden foods,” but I’m not sure that this is enough to counteract the previous several chapters where foods and the bodies of folks who eat them, have been clearly judged.

It really is too bad that Fitzgerald struggles to keep his message body neutral and free of food moralizing. I like the idea of a popular book helping people develop the skills to recognize when a diet is a diet, when it’s a set of arbitrary rules and taking advantage of our need for identity. I think his observations about food rules and identity are interesting and worthy of consideration; however, I can’t recommend this book without trigger warnings and without concern for the unspoken values it promotes. If you already feel judgmental towards yourself or others based on body fat, or if you struggle to not moralize your food choices, this book may reinforce those tendencies. And for all of us who live in diet cultures, this book does not do enough to push back against the harms that these philosophies impose.

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