Last week a friend of mine sent me a link to this comment on Metafilter in response to a question (in italics):

Pitcher-of-KoolAidI just don't really understand why people have to then develop some kind of mad religious fervor about it

Because it's food, and food is weirdly always kind of connected with religion for us. I don't know if it's all humans or just modern ones. But think of how many religions you know of with very strong ideas about food.

My suspicion for many years has been that the reason we're seeing such an upswing in eating-based identities ("I'm a vegetarian", "I'm paleo", "I'm gluten free*", etc) is that it strokes the same part of our brain that, a century ago, would have been strongly identifying with a particular organized religious group.

*I'm talking about folks who use that as an identity, not framing it as celiac or the like. Obviously there are people whose bodies cannot tolerate gluten, and that's not what I'm referring to here.

I got a good chuckle, but it’s completely true. Every major world religion has food rules. Even the secular public seeks to make food a moral argument by calling some foods “good” and some foods “bad.” Regions have food wars; we have countless food contests and food laws; there are even people who think that you can BBQ a chicken (you can’t! That’s grilling!)

Food isn’t simple because it’s so damn simple. Eat it; live. Don’t; die. The fact is that humans are scavengers and we can survive on just about any diet. Oh sure, we thrive better on others, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.

John Berardi, PhD. breaks down all food science into three variables that we can manipulate. Here they are in order of impact.

  • Nutrient amount (How much do you eat).
  • Nutrient quality (What you eat).
  • Nutrient timing (When you eat it).

If you want to gain or lose weight, these are the variables you’re looking at changing. Every diet you’ve ever seen, heard of, read about, or mocked is just a way to manipulate these three things. An interesting point to note is the variable they are manipulating isn’t always obvious (Intermittent Fasting actually impacts nutrient amount more than nutrient timing), but if a diet is changing your body it’s definitely acting on one or all of them.

So if it’s that simple, why is everyone fatter than they want to be? Because your body is smarter than you. You can trick it with a caloric deficit for a while, but it’s going to conspire with your brain to find an energy balance. Don’t be bummed, it’s a key reason we have survived on a harsh planet that wants us dead for the last few hundred millennia. You just have to keep working to outsmart it. Which is why I’m about to tell you to join a cult.

Most people who go on a weight loss journey alone stop at the first bite of chicken-and-waffles. Weight Watchers and just about everyone else has learned that about the only way to improve success in fat loss is to recruit others. They keep you motivated, accountable, and sane when your office throws the 9th birthday party with chips and cake this month. As the commenter above pointed out, people have eating-identities because it stroke a part of the brain that is really damned powerful. Sometimes more powerful than even all that evolution. Ever see a devout Muslim resist bacon? They don’t even break a sweat because they have a community of people telling them it’s righteous to not dig on swine.

So my weird advice for you is to get a group of friends together and make your own cult of food. Sure, I’d like it if you decide your dogma is to eat more veggies and lean protein, but you know what? As long as your food choices are affecting the three variables, you’ll lose fat for a while. And by enforcing your rules on each other and lording “salvation” over one another every time you want to break those rules, you may have an easier go at resisting those urges and defying evolution for long enough to have some results.

Here’s Coach Stevo's tips for starting your own Food Cult

1. Choose cult members wisely. There’s nothing worse than a someone who whines that the Kool-Aid is warm. Pick members of like-minded folk who are easily manipulated into believing weird things like that humans thrived more during the Paleolithic era than in modernity.

2. Write a manifesto. You’re going to need to write down all the foods that are “good” and all the foods that are “bad.” That way you can site this sacred text when you need to strike down upon a member with great vengeance and furious anger.

3. Have meetings. Some people’s sole reason to exist is to have meetings so they can discuss what happened and what’s going to happen later. You can use these meeting to plan meals together or talk about how everyone else just doesn’t get it.

If you think that I’m joking about all this, you’re half-right. Behavior change takes support, and for all their ills, cults are very supportive if you follow the dogma. Try this experiment with some friends for two weeks, laugh it off with some pie, then try it again with a completely different manifesto for another two weeks. It will probably break up the monotony of eating all those salads by yourself and give you a common experience with other people to look forward to. And you can do anything for 14 days. Except not eat bacon.