Friday, August 01, 2014

Book review: Diet Cults by Matt Fitzgerald

Note: This book was purchased by me as part of my subscription (Audible is still not a sponsor of this blog, although they should be). Links included are Amazon Affiliate links.

Diet Cults: The Surprising Fallacy at the Core of Nutrition Fads and a Guide to Healthy Eating for the Rest of US by Matt Fitzgerald

Author Matt Fitzgerald seems to specialize in the diet interests of endurance athletes, and is probably better known for Racing Weight: How to Get Lean for Peak Performance so as someone interested in endurance sports, my husband had come across this book and suggested I read and review it for the blog

Fitzgerald is being purposely provocative in his use of the phrase "Diet Cults" to encompass everything from raw foodism to Paleo. However, he does effectively use religious cults as a metaphor for diet fads and a reason for their success.

Diet cults, Fitzgerald says, (and the more traditional religious kind) are purposely extreme because that very extremism makes it easier to know whether you are in or out.  Most of the diets he labels as cults have strict "good food" and "bad food" rules. They also have their own insider language, rituals, and culture.  All of these things help to cultivate a sense of an identity for members, which helps to reinforce members' motivation to stick it out when things get difficult.

Though he is critical of the science behind so-called diet cults, he also thinks that the sense of identity  they foster helps to keep people on track in a world where more mainstream, less sexy advice often falters in a world filled with Krispy Kremes and all-you-can-eat buffets.

In fact, he wants to create his own "cult" of Agnostic Healthy Eaters, and includes a breathtakingly dull and arcane list of rules for a complicated healthy eating rules for his plan, and refers to daily scorekeeping and... a whole lot of other things that I zoned out while listening to. If I'm going to keep a diet score, I would rather count PointsPlus with Weight Watchers, which he also classifies as a Diet Cult, though he does praise its "no bullish*t," commonsense approach and group support.

I also call shenanigans on his assertions that endurance athletes don't fall for diet cults, and that a person who gets "lots" of aerobic exercise can't possibly overeat enough to gain weight.  He doesn't really specify how much "lots" is, but I have two examples in my household alone that disprove the latter assertion, and most of the endurance athletes I have met are just as likely to struggle with healthy eating as anyone else.

In fact, far from just lampooning most of the "diet cults" he discusses, he gives a detailed example of a person who has followed each to achieve weight loss and better health. They often don't follow the plans strictly (for example, the case study of raw foodism includes sardines in his diet, which are definitely not vegan or raw).

I read some of the reviews of this book, and they seemed to call Fitzgerald out for "recommending the SAD (Standard American Diet). I would like to say that the Standard American Diet as practiced by standard Americans is a lot different than the diet recommendations promoted by mainstream organizations like the USDA, though I agree that there is an inherent conflict between the "selling" part of the USDA and the "recommending" part, which is probably why we are supposed to be drinking all of that milk even though a majority of humans are lactose-intolerant.

To be honest, I nodded along with his criticisms of other diets and then was surprised he included Weight Watchers as a diet cult. Though it does have membership and plenty of its own silliness, and some members are prone to going to extremes.  I asked my husband whether he thought Weight Watchers was a cult, and he said he thought it was just a religion, not a cult.  To me it seems more like a series of simple tools than a full-fledged cult, but I guess that followers of any of the other diets discussed in the book might say the same about theirs.

I think if you want a more detailed, scientific discussion of the merits and failings of various diets, you are better off with Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease by Robert H. Lustig (reviewed here) or The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work by Yoni Freedhoff (reviewed here).

Even with its limitations, this was a fun read, though it did take some dull sidelines into the intricacies of wine, chocolate, and coffee as a discussion of how healthy foods can also taste good. Though I found these sections long-winded, they were a rare reminder that health is not always in opposition to pleasure from food and drink.


  1. I always felt that WW was somewhat cultish. The way people supported it and defended it if someone dared criticize it.

    1. And I guess I didn't change your mind with my comments here, eh? :) Personally, I think anything that helps someone do the hard work of losing weight is terrific, and I don't think there is one right way.

    2. I totally agree with you. It fueled a lot of unhealthy behaviors for me and did nothing for the root cause of my weight but I feel drawn to it. Maybe I can do the program healthy this time? :)

    3. The big difference for me this time around is that I'm not holding myself to perfection. If I can continue to track, even if I go over my points, and be conscious of my food choices, I'm doing better than I do on my own.

      I also have a leader this time around who is realistic and knows how hard it is. The leader is so important, still. When we have had a substitute, I haven't felt as warm and fuzzy about the meetings.

  2. My only comment: The Lustig crowd, which is all for eliminating every kind of grain and indulging heavily in animal products is just Atkins revisited. Yes, one can lose weight going the low carb route, but it becomes very dull and boring after a while. Plus, too much sacrifice and not enough reward. Thans.


"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07