Eating and Being   /   Fall 2019   /    Thematic: Eating and Being

You Are What You (Don’t) Eat

The personal diet has become not only a cult; it has become a political statement.

James McWilliams

Geo Images/Alamy Stock Photo.

In the summer of 2016, James and Becca Reed, a lower-income couple living in Austin, Texas, decided it was time to save their lives. The Reeds, married more than twenty-five years, had become morbidly obese, diabetic, and depressed. They were taking a combined thirty-two medications. Only in their early fifties, they had arrived at this condition via a well-trod path: They ate their way into it. They did no more than consume what the American food industry not only offers in abundance—salt, starch, and sweetness—but also encourages us to eat.

As nearly 40 percent of the adult US population can attest, it doesn’t take a lot of time, effort, or expense for the consequences of the American way of eating to add up.11xCraig M. Hales, Margaret D. Carroll, Cheryl D. Fryar, and Cynthia L. Ogden, Prevalence of Obesity among Adults and Youth: United States, 2015–2016 (Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics, 2017), 1. Retrieved from A steady diet of processed and fast food, oversized restaurant meals, and “favorited” takeout options can quickly make the average American a victim of the growing obesity epidemic. Considering that the Reeds live paycheck to paycheck, and given what we know about the strong link between economic disadvantage and poor eating choices, I was especially intrigued when a friend, who knew James and Becca from church, told me about this really interesting couple getting ready to reclaim their health in a dramatic way.

With disarming generosity, the Reeds opened their lives to me as they undertook their mission. For three months I followed and documented their progress, meeting with them several times a week, usually at the small gym they attended (on the gym owner’s dime) to talk as they exercised. What they did was both miraculous and subversive. The miraculous part is in the numbers. Becca’s blood sugar level dropped from an alarming 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) to a very normal 80 mg/dL; James’s cholesterol went from well over a borderline 200 mg/dL to a safe 153; both were losing 15 to 20 pounds a month. They reversed their diabetes—Becca’s score on the glycated hemoglobin test (6.5 or higher indicates the presence of diabetes) plummeted from 9.75 to 5.8—and stopped taking most of their medications. With remarkable efficiency, the Reeds did as planned. They saved their lives.

But as physically conspicuous as their transformation was (soon their clothes were hanging off their bodies), the ultimate driving force behind the Reeds’ success was subversive: They escaped a food system that had been eroding their health. On the surface, the Reeds did what healthy Americans habitually do—they walked more, went to the neighborhood pool after work, cut back on screen time, and hit the gym a few times a week. But these measures, at least when it came to emotionally sustaining their journey, struck them as too anodyne, too lacking in the sort of meaning they wanted to experience through their efforts. As they often remarked, it would have been easy to cheat on their routines unless there had been a moral dimension to their crusade. Healthful activities might have been central to their transformation, but they did not provide what the Reeds needed most: a community bound by a set of stipulations that mattered—in effect, a creed.

So when it came to confronting the food system in which the Reeds had long been entrapped, they decided it was not enough to behave like most relatively healthy Americans. Instead, they needed to adopt an entirely new identity and wrap their reinvented selves in its defining cloak. The Reeds did so by going vegan.

Food Fills the Spiritual Void

In Food Cults: How Fads, Dogma, and Doctrine Influence Diet, Kima Cargill, a psychology professor at the University of Washington, Tacoma, writes that “membership in food cults serves the same psychological functions of cult membership of any kind.” People are attracted to cohesive groups as a means of defining identity, or as Cargill puts it, “delineating in-group and out-group membership.”22xKima Cargill, “The Psychology of Food Cults,” Food Cults: How Fads, Dogma, and Doctrine Influence Diet, ed. Kima Cargill (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2017), 17.

As a physical matter, the Reeds did not regain their health because there is something inherently beneficial about being vegan—there’s not. It’s possible, indeed easy, to be an unhealthy vegan. Rather, the Reeds’ transition resulted, predictably, from adopting certain perfectly unremarkable practices: more exercise, portion control, and the consumption of real food, mostly vegetables, rather than processed junk. But what the vegan diet did for the Reeds was exactly what Cargill suggests it does. It allowed them to frame otherwise dull choices in an exclusive and essentialist—and often very exciting—ideology, one that gave them a sense of conviction and community. In this respect, veganism, like many rigorous diet schemes, functions like a cult, with an ethic rooted in what members won’t eat and the value imbued in that denial.

The ghost of religion hovers like a mist over America’s sprawling dietary landscape. Catholics’ abstinence from meat on Fridays, Jews’ avoidance of the flesh of cloven-hooved beasts, and the Hindus’ vegetarianism are well-known, identity-forming convergences of diet, faith, and community. But Cargill takes this religious association further, suggesting that the secularization of modern culture “has left many searching for the structure and identity that religion once provided.”33xIbid., 12. Given this spiritual void, she explains, “food cults arguably replace what religion once did by prescribing organized food rules and rituals.” These are rules and rituals that—whether the diet is vegan or vegetarian, paleo or primal, Mediterranean or South Beach—nurture identities that keep us loyal, insularly focused, and passionate about what we will and, even more significantly, will not eat.

As in any religious quest, the themes of reform and conversion overlap. From Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle to Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a century of literature has demonized verboten foods in the interest of improving personal health and, more importantly, the quality of the nation’s food supply. Whether the offending choice is industrial meat, all meat, farmed fish, processed food, food that grandma didn’t eat, or fast food, the message is one that has been internalized as a mainstream cultural critique: Our food system is in shambles and it must, as a moral imperative, be reformed. Today, it’s no surprise that a relatively new social movement—the “Food Movement”—has emerged around these impassioned exhortations and prohibitions, fueled by congregations of the faithful urging us to “vote with our forks” to fix the system. The personal diet has become not only a cult; it has become a political statement.

Vegans, slow foodies, sustainable foodies, pescatarians, vegetarians, paleos, primals, fruititarians, juicers—this ever-expanding list of dietary sects demonstrates how we can still find new ways to define ourselves in an American dietary landscape seemingly mined to the point of exhaustion. Given the pervasive corruption and seductive power of the system by which food is produced and then presented to the American consumer, as well as our sense of political impotence in the face of this system, it’s hard not to credit the decision and commitment of someone who seeks salvation in a cult-diet conversion. But for all the options to go that route and for all our feverish enthusiasm for such diet regimes, there’s a more fundamental issue we seem to be neglecting: the larger food system itself.

Big agriculture’s fundamental problems—the emphasis on factory-farmed meat and dairy, fertilizer-intensive corn and soy production, the failure to grow a diversity of nutrient-dense plants for people to eat (rather than corn and soy for animals), agricultural policies that favor large corporate farms—have become even more entrenched. Indeed, in the last half-century, industrial food has become only more aligned with the logic of industrial animal production, less diverse in nutrients and real foods, and more reliant on mechanization (and, now it seems, artificial intelligence). All this has occurred even as cult diets have flourished. The question is thus unavoidable: Could individuals voting with their forks—thereby identifying with a diet (or at least a movement)—distract from or even undermine what we really should be doing to reform our food system: reimagining it altogether?

Hiding in Dietary Shelters

The suggestion that our dietary landscape reflects a failure of political imagination underscored by a self-indulgent identity politics might have a familiar ring for those who follow progressive politics today. In his recent book The Once and Future Liberal, political scientist Mark Lilla incurred the wrath of many fellow liberals by arguing that the progressive left has failed to “develop a fresh political vision of the country’s shared destiny” through its increasingly exclusive preoccupation with the “the movement politics of identity.”44xMark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2017), 9. While Lilla may overstate his case—identity has always been at issue in politics, even when questions of class and political economy loom large—his critique of liberalism as a movement fragmented by identity politics provides an instructive parallel for those seeking to assess the impact of cult diets on the broken food system. Insofar as critics of chemically intensive and overindustrialized food hope to replace today’s array of processed junk offerings with a healthier and more wholesome food supply, our retreat into sacralized cult diets mirrors the “pseudo-politics of self-regard” Lilla associates with the identity-obsessed wing of the American left.55xIbid., 10. Indeed, the proliferation of identity-driven cult diets makes it hard to realize the considerable potential for a unified push for food reform that transcends conventional political lines. Having an inherently healthful food supply—something that we have yet to really imagine in the twenty-first century—appeals equally to those on the right and the left. Go to any farmers’ market and you are as likely to bump into a libertarian as a Marxist, both of whom want to know their farmer and the quality of the food he grows. Everyone, in other words, has a basic interest in being surrounded by a food supply that does not require a diet to negotiate.

Yet in the face of this challenge, we hide in ever more obscure and fragmented dietary shelters that to outsiders often seem ridiculous, if not narcissistic. Whether it’s vegans fighting over the ethics of dribbling honey on your toast (honey, of course, being an animal product), whether you should identify as “primal” or the more ideologically pure “paleo,” whether the juicer’s drink is from organic produce or not, or even whether you should recruit your pets to join you in your little raw-food revolution, diet zealots undermine the larger cause by making targets of themselves and becoming the “elitists” of pseudo-populist mockery—or, conversely, making it all too easy for pandering politicians to enhance their credibility as “one of the people” by chomping down on a Big Mac or tucking into a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken on Air Force One.

For all the personal empowerment diet regimes appear to offer, they ultimately fail as solutions to the food crisis by keeping us from collectively reimagining what it means to eat well. Extreme identitarianism, whether in matters ethnic or dietary, also suffers from an inwardness and insularity, a preoccupation with purity and correctness, that delineates boundaries instead of forging commonalities among people who might otherwise have common cause. Kima Cargill, the psychologist who studies our complex relationship with dieting, explained to me how the dieters she examined (especially followers of the paleo diet) revealed far more attentiveness to the relative purity of those within the cult than to how people behaved outside it. Just as activist students on a college campus might police each other’s language and rhetorical attentiveness to “the other” while ignoring how the world outside the university speaks, so will vegans exercise extreme vigilance over the converted rather than worry too much about the meat-eating masses. (As a former vegan who is still a vegan activist, I’m all too aware of the infighting.)

What If We Could Start Over?

While following the Reeds’ progress, I kept thinking that human beings have been eating food for almost three million years, but have been practicing agriculture for only about the last twelve thousand. I also recalled that we started to lose control of our food consumption in the last fifty or so years. This timeline seemed significant, although just how significant was unclear. But the more aggressively the Reeds embraced their vegan diet, the more it became clear that, for all their passion and optimism, theirs was an act of desperation. They were victims of a food system that emerged not because a few greedy corporations willed it into being, but, more exactly, because of the accumulation of innumerable small decisions by corporations and policymakers that, coinciding with a sudden increase in sedentary behavior, culminated in a food system that leaves very few with the knowledge or wherewithal to resist its most destructive effects.

The cult diets that so many people pursue to escape the food system are natural reactions to a historical process we rarely acknowledge. The way we eat today is a thunderbolt of human experimentation with you and me as the subjects. Given the recent arrival of the industrial food system, and given how we were blindsided by it, one could be forgiven for failing to ask a question far more critical than what kind of diet I should pursue to protect myself. What we need to explore instead is this: Why should we assume that we would ever get food production right on the first attempt? Recognizing the process of trial and error driving every other area of human progress, who would ever think we would get something as complicated as feeding the world a healthful and diverse diet right the first time around?

This question flips the entire concept of a diet on its head. It forces us to consider why we feel the need to diet in the first place. The convenient answer, as we’ve seen, is that the food system is so deeply imbued with unhealthy choices that the only way to avoid getting sick is to diet our way through the system. But a deeper answer might consider the irony that the growing array of unhealthy food choices—which diets try to negotiate—has resulted from a radical reduction in the diversity of plants and animals we eat. Today, 75 percent of the world’s food derives from just five animals and twelve plants. Nearly 60 percent of our plant-based calories come from only three plants—corn, rice, and wheat—all of which can be processed into a million confections.66xMichael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Search for a Perfect Meal in a Fast-Food World (London, England: Bloomsbury, 2006), chapter 5. Meanwhile, there are an estimated fifty thousand edible plants in existence. The same depletion of diverse options holds true for animals. We could be eating thousands of edible, minimally sentient animals. Instead we pretty much eat three and, increasingly, just one: chicken. (According to one source, each American ate 48.8 kg of chicken per person in 2017, replacing beef as the most consumed meat in the country.)77xAccording to World Atlas, “How Much Meat Do Americans Eat?”: “Poultry is the most consumed meat in the United States. On average, each American ate 48.8 kg of chicken in 2017. Chicken has become the most popular meat, toppling beef, which was the favorite for a long time…. This shift has been attributed to health concerns that link beef to various lifestyle diseases.”; So the next time you bite into a piece of chicken, you might ask yourself: Why am I eating this bird? Cult diets have at least allowed us to wonder about something far more significant than what I should or should not eat. They prepare us to look at the food supply as it now exists and, instead of seeking to blame big corporations or ducking into distant culinary shelters of foodie elitism, think in a more fundamentally different way: What if we could start over?

Answering this question demands imagination. Given the radical homogenization of the food system, a diet is the last place you would start. It’s a cop-out, a sure-fire way to avoid the spirit of imagination that Lilla argues is smothered by extreme identity politics. We need a culinary imagination that sustains a way of life that benefits the common good. Given their ineffectiveness at achieving personal health and political suasion, cult diets must yield to another manner of reform that, in the short term, follows the simple rule of maximizing (from what little is available) a diversity of the very few healthful and whole plants and animals currently produced for humans to eat. But in the long term, our view of what we eat will have to encompass a food system that is radically diverse, accessible to all, nutrient-dense, and ideally respectful of animal as well as human welfare. That is, a food system that allows us, once and for all, to abandon our diets, sit down to a more healthful table of food, and eat without worrying about the right way to do so.