Cait Chock has more good ideas in one day than many prospective writers have in months. This piece, an interview with Matt Fitzgerald, is a case in point. Matt is one of my favorite endurance writers: thoughtful, well researched, plus a nice sense of humor. His themes on diet and sports culture are fascinating. His Diet Cults book reviews some of the true eccentrics out there in the diet kulturkampf.
Interview With Matt Fitzgerald About His Newly Released Book, Diet Cults
By: Cait Chock
Anyone with even the slightest interest in endurance training and performance nutrition has heard of Matt Fitzgerald’s (http://mattfitzgerald.org/ ). Endurance athlete himself, he spends the rest of his time writing articles and books aimed to help others race their best and reach their highest potential. Coach, certified sports nutritionist, and having already published numerous books related to training and sports nutrition, Fitzgerald’s latest book, Diet Cults, (http://mattfitzgerald.org/books/diet-cults-book/ ) is at a slight tangent. Certainly still of the nutritional theme, Diet Cults has turned into just as much a lesson in sociology as health and fitness.
Written in response to the rapid rise in food and diet obsession, where individuals and their specific diets have entered cult-status, Fitzgerald speaks poignantly, and humorously, how “foodeology” is affecting our culture, the masses, and the elite athlete. I asked Fitzgerald to tell us about his most recent book, what some of the craziest diet cult rules are out there, what true healthy eating looks like, and how this relates to the athletes of the world.
- What inspired you to write Diet Cults? When did you first get the idea for the book?
The basic concept for the book first came to me in 2008. At that time I coined the term “foodeology” to refer to the phenomenon of food-based ideology that I was seeing in advocates for many popular diets. I played around with the idea in my head and in short pieces for more than three years before I committed to writing Diet Cults.
- What did the writing and research process look like? In exposing all these different “cults” who were some of the people you talked to? This one is a little different from your other sports performance nutrition and training works.
I decided early on that I did not want to make a scientific argument. Instead I wanted to use a variety of tools, including science, narrative, history, and even humor to make the most persuasive possible case that 1) there is no single “best” diet for humans and 2) that humans nevertheless have a non rational tendency to believe in and identify with a “best” diet. So my research led me in many directions, from scientific journals to obscure books about what Lewis and Clark ate during their famous expedition to various everyday people who had gone all in with diets ranging from raw to Paleo.
- Where did all of these cults arise from, what need did they set out to fulfill?
I believe that diet cults have existed as long as we have. At first they consisted of rules concerning what members of a given tribe, culture, or religion could and could not eat. It is widely assumed that such rules always had a basis in health, but in fact most did not. Their primary purpose was simply to define a distinct cultural identity. For thousands of years, there was really only one way to eat per culture. But in today’s world people have great freedom to choose a diet from among scores of options. A competitive marketplace of health-based diet cults emerged in the 19th century in response to the negative health effects of unrestrained pleasure eating. All of these diets present themselves as science-based and completely focused on the rational goal of maximizing health, but in the book I show that these diets are as much about identity, morality, and community as were any of the ancient cultural diets.
- You parallel the way people have turned HOW they eat into a religion, that the control and set of rules they cling to can give them a feeling of stability and sense of rightfulness. How can this kind of thinking become dangerous or destructive for people, and specifically athletes?
Accepting the doctrine of any diet cult brings several risks. First, there is the risk that the diet itself is not a good fit for your individual needs. For example, low-carb diets are generally a poor fit for the needs of endurance athletes. The diet cults also tend to discourage the exercise of individual agency in shaping one’s diet. Healthy eating habits tend to be most effective and sustainable for a person if that person has shaped them around his or her individual needs, preferences, and lifestyle. The one-size-fits-all approach of the diet cults thwarts this process. The diet cults also foster an overblown fear of dietary missteps that can lead to an unhealthy obsession with food and even disordered eating. At the very least this “one false move” mentality tends to bleed some of the pleasure out of eating.
- Food has evolved into something much more than an energy supply, unlike any other species, humans use food as a cultural focal point, social interaction, emotional crutch, etc. What are the negative effects of this on athletes?
The unique human relationship to food is a beautiful thing in many ways. Every meal is a ritual of sorts. Take the practice of carbo-loading the day before a long race. It’s not just an effective way of enhancing performance, but it’s also a ritual that binds together endurance athletes as a community. The negatives come in only when we get so wrapped up in our social and moral attachments to certain ways of eating that the rituals we intend to use to enhance performance actually do the opposite. Deciding that sugar is “toxic” and refusing to benefit from its ergogenic effect during races is one example.
- What is one of the main messages you want people to take away from in reading your book?
My first goal in writing the book was to make it a generally accepted fact that there is no single best diet for humans. My second goal was to create a more visible alternative to the diet cults for people who want to eat healthy but are turned off by the diet cults’ false doctrine and arbitrary restrictions. I call this alternative “agnostic healthy eating” and it’s nothing more than a sexed-up version of mainstream nutrition science guidelines for healthy eating. It also happens to be the way most elite endurance athletes eat–just a high-quality version of a culturally normal diet.
- Do you feel athletes are “above” falling into a diet cult or does their health and performance-driven mindsets make them more susceptible to falling victim?
Serious amateur endurance athletes are far more likely to follow diet cults than are their professional counterparts. I believe that the pros practice agnostic healthy eating because it is the simplest and safest way to eat for maximum performance. These folks don’t need the extra motivation to eat carefully that comes from submitting to some dietary doctrine and joining a community of likeminded eaters. They get all the motivation they need from the desire to win. As I write in the book, “They will gladly do whatever is required dietetically to maximize their fitness and performance. But at the same time they are resistant to any dietary restrictions that are not relevant to their goals.”
- Elite athletes, who need to view food as a performance tool, how is the current state of nutritional chaos and diet cults impacting them?
By and large they are very well buffered from it. The typical Olympic runner is no more likely to get her nutritional guidance from a book like The Paleo Diet for Athletes than she is to get her training from a CrossFit Endurance coach. There are lots of well-trained professional sports nutritionists out there and they’re all preaching pretty much the same gospel–namely, what decades of real-world trial and error support by good science has proven to be most effective. Fortunately, these are the folks most pros are listening to.
- What kind of diet do you follow? What are some of the key elements that need to comprise a healthy, sane diet for a competitive runner?
I’m an agnostic health eater, of course! I eat everything, and at first glance my diet just looks like a normal American diet. But a closer look reveals that it’s weighted heavily toward high-quality food types (vegetables, fish, whole grains, etc.) and includes only small amounts of low-quality food types such as sweets and fried foods. I don’t really see myself as sacrificing anything in my efforts to support maximum health and fitness with my diet. I just choose healthy foods that I like–say, lentil soup–in place of unhealthy foods I like, such as Krispy Kreme donuts!
- Athletes are not immune to looking at a particular diet as the ONLY way, or best way to eat. What is your response to endurance athletes who’ve written books about their particular diet and voicing their vegan/etc. food choices?
I’m not trying to persuade anyone to abandon a diet he or she is happy with. As I said earlier, I’m just trying to create a more visible alternative to the diet cults for people who have not yet found a diet they’re happy with. But anyone who believes that his diet is superior to all others is wrong, and I’m on a mission to make it impossible for anyone to get away with making this claim about any diet.
- Could one parallel the same kind of self-satisfaction and sense of control the general masses are gaining from following a diet cult to, then, that of a runner following a training plan and progressing their fitness? In your opinion is there any way we could begin shifting the diet worshiping masses to embrace endorphins as their “fix” for fulfillment?
There’s a curious phenomenon in endurance sports that I call the Sour Grapes Syndrome. It affects males, mostly. Here’s how it works: A naturally competitive male takes up running as an adult with hopes of being good at it. Unfortunately, it turns out he’s not very good at it. As a way of taking revenge on faster runners, he decides to change the objective of the sport from doing it well to doing it “right” (much as the fox in Aesop’s fable decided that the grapes he wanted but couldn’t reach must be sour). “Doing it right” means things like running with “correct” form, ditching regular shoes for Vibrams, abandoning Lydiard-style training for CrossFit Endurance, and trading agnostic healthy eating for the Paleo Diet or this absurd high-fat diet that is currently making the rounds. Embracing these alternative practices helps certain male athletes gain a feeling of superiority over better athletes that they apparently need psychologically. And I believe that if these guys could just forget about the pecking order and draw satisfaction from improving, there would be many fewer athletes following diet cults.
- I love that you stated how there’s an underlying group of people silently laughing and shaking their heads at lots of these diets. I’m among them. Are you hoping Diet Cults can be the voice for us, was that one of your goals in setting out writing this? What are your goals, and how would you like Diet Cults to make an impact on people and athletes?
I will confess that when I was writing Diet Cults I envisioned people giving it as a gift to friends, family members, and colleagues who are a little too push with their dietary evangelism. And it appears that this is now actually happening!
- Finally, what are some of the most absurd diet cults or rules you came across in writing your book? Are you afraid of any backlashes from people?
The most absurd diet cult is that of the Breatharians, who believe that humans are healthiest when they don’t eat at all. I am not afraid of being attacked by diet cult followers because in a sense their attacks validate my argument!
Thank you very much to Matt Fitzgerald for his time. You can read more about Diet Cults, available in multiple formats, HERE.( http://mattfitzgerald.org/books/diet-cults-book/)
Caitlin Chock (caitchock.com) set the then National High School 5k Record (15:52.88) in 2004. A freelance writer, artist, and designer she writes about all things running and founded Ezzere, her own line of running shirts (www.ezzere.com). You can read more, see her running comics, and her shirts at her website.