Diet dogma, food and morality: why diet identities are unhelpful

This is a tricky subject but something that has been on my mind lately. As someone who has been in the health and wellness field for several years, I have seen this reoccurring pattern of almost a cult-like mentality around various diets. As a former vegan I have certainly fallen for this idea that there is “one diet to rule them all” and experienced this almost religious dedication to my diet dogma of choice. But this doesn’t only happen with veganism, I’ve also seen the same aggressive preaching, tunnel vision and exclusionary mentality amongst followers of the paleo, raw food, keto and carnivore diets as well as those who believe that gluten, dairy or sugar are the devil.

Why do we do this? Why does following particular way of eating give us this feeling of safety and superiority? Why do we cling onto the idea that a particular diet will save us, take away all of our suffering and lead us to an infinite nirvana of perfect health? I think advertising definitely plays a role as health, youth and beauty have become aspirational products that can be marketed and sold. This used to be a tactic adopted by food manufacturers to sell us products like diet coke and special k but now with social media, anyone can become a diet “guru” and make millions selling the new version of sermons and religious texts (aka recipe e-books and courses), sometimes without any qualifications to back up their claims, other than personal experience.

When we are struggling, either with a chronic health condition or with the belief that we aren’t good enough as we are and need to somehow improve ourselves, we become the perfect customer. These gurus become our idols and we are vulnerable to believing everything that we see and trusting what we are told. We see people sharing about how cutting out all carbs or adopting a raw vegan diet cured them of every symptom and disease and improved their life in every way and of course, we want a piece of that! But we always have to remember that we don’t see everything about people’s lives and especially when someone has a product to sell, they have an investment in promoting perfection and sweeping any issues under the rug.

We all know in theory that social media is a highlight reel and that people tend to share what is going well or their success stories in overcoming their problems, myself included! I’ve often shared stories of my past struggles and how I have managed to balance my hormones and fix my relationship to food and my body. I try to be transparent and also share the process when I am in the messy place of trying to figure something out but of course I don’t write about every single thing going on in my life. Partly because I don’t want to bore people but mostly because when you’re in the eye of the storm, you don’t have the clarity and understanding that comes with hindsight and enables you to write about your struggles. So I don’t believe that anyone does it on purpose but we all tend to show more of the positive and less of the negative aspects of ourselves. It’s human nature to want to show our best side but our shadows and struggles are what make us human.

There has been a trend over the last couple of years on social media, with vegan influencers coming out and sharing “why I’m no longer vegan” stories. Often these are people who spent years declaring to the world how good they felt, how energetic they were and how amazing their hair and skin had become on this diet, only to admit a few months later that they were struggling all along and didn’t feel able to talk about it because they felt trapped by the web they had weaved around themselves. Their online identity and professional reputation had become so tied up in their diet dogma that they found it so hard to change their diet for their health, never mind tell their audience that they were doing so. And the ones that did share this experience received so much backlash and abuse from the community for being selfish or hypocritical.

This public shaming behaviour was so shocking to me and made me realise just how far this moralising of food and diet <cult>ure has become. Food is no longer just fuel and nourishment for the body and soul but it is now a way for people to express their status as a good citizen. Yes it’s great that we are now becoming more aware of the ethical issues surrounding our food system, especially now the size of the global population is leaving our planet straining at the seams. Making more ethical choices is is a good thing and something I am totally on board with and often talk about on this blog. It’s amazing that companies are now looking at their supply chains, consumers are seeking out more sustainable, fair trade products and we want to see this trend continue. However, this is work in progress and all we can do is make the best choices where possible to meet our conflicting objectives.

A healthy diet isn’t always sustainable or ethical and a sustainable diet isn’t always healthy. And no food or diet is perfect. You eat meat and dairy and contribute to climate change and potentially animal cruelty and pollution. So you cut out animal products and instead end up eating vegan products that are shipped from all over the world, produced on farms that cause large scale eco system damage or exploit bonded labourers in developing countries. You try to eat all organic, local, plant-based food and end up with a myriad of health issues due to your overly restrictive diet. We all have a responsibility to make better choices where we can, even though with the way the food system operates right now some of this is out of our hands. But we certainly shouldn’t feel guilt or shame for our food choices when they are not perfect, or shame others who do not have access to or cannot afford to make these better choices, because let’s be honest, choosing high-quality, organic, local produce is often a privilege rather than the easy option.

Moving away from ethics and towards health and wellness, when it comes to the macro-nutrient wars of the HCLF (high carb low fat) vs. the LCFH (low carb high fat) communities, it just gets silly. Each camp has their own key pieces of research that they cite and doctors that they follow who claim that this way of eating is the perfect human diet. Each has their armies of followers with stories of healing and longevity who battle against each other in pointless debates and who circle in their own communities, brainwashing themselves and proving each other right. In reality how can we possibly know what the perfect human diet is? Humans developed all over the planet and survived on so many different diets: hunter gatherers, agricultural communities and now industrial societies like the ones most of us live in today. There is so much conflicting research out there that it’s possible to find evidence to back up almost any claim.

There is so much variety in our genetics, environment and physical health status that there’s no way there is one truth when it comes to food and diet. Plus, health is about so much more than what we eat. When we look at the blue zones (the places with the highest number of centenarians), they don’t all follow the same diet but one thing they have in common is their sense of community, slow pace of life and connection with the natural world. I think there comes a point when you have to accept that perfecting your diet can only get you so far and the simple act of trying can be a stress on the body that causes health issues to continue. It’s much better to eat food that makes you feel strong and energetic, keeps your metabolism functioning at it’s best but also brings you joy and connection with the community you live in than keeping yourself in an isolated bubble, trying to consume the optimal diet for humans.

I am saying this as much for my past self as I am for all of you out there. I have been through phases where I was so desperate to heal my body that I put all of my energy into eating what I believed was the best diet for my body as well as the planet and it only made things worse. Letting go of the diet dogma was what finally helped me to heal. Now I definitely make the effort to make ethical and healthy food choices. I buy from local markets when I can, experiment with growing my own food, eat lots of plant-based meals and choose organic, fair trade products where its available and affordable. But I’m refuse to obsess over it or feel anxious when I can’t make the ideal choice. I eat plenty of things that aren’t sustainable or health promoting just because they taste good. I also now eat animal products again as for me, veganism didn’t work out and I experienced health issues despite being very careful with my diet and supplementation (I’m sorry to any vegans reading this but this was my experience).

I would never recommend to a client that they should eat a certain way and exclude particular food groups or foods, unless they have their own ethical or medical reasons to do so. I am a strong believer in paying attention to your bodies’ response to certain foods and choosing a diet based on what makes you feel your best. One of the best ways to do this in my experience in using a food diary, not to restrict your intake but to record how you really feel, physically and mentally, after eating certain foods or meals. This way you are totally in control and rather than relying on external information, you can listen and respond to your own bodies’ signals which is what we are designed to do. And even when you do find something that works, remember that this can change! Our bodies are never stagnant, we are constantly aging and adapting to the changing seasons and environment so we can’t expect that what works for us today will work 10 or 20 years down the line.

Over to you…

Anyway, that’s enough of me ranting for one day! Please leave a comment below if you have any thoughts on this topic, I’d love to hear your opinions and have a discussion. If you found this article interesting, please like this post and follow my blog to be notified when I post something new.

If you are looking for guidance, support and accountability on you health journey, please contact me or check out the nutrition and holistic health coaching packages I offer. I am a qualified Public Health Nutritionist and hatha yoga teacher and my specialty is helping women to balance their hormones and heal their body and metabolism after restrictive dieting. I would love to work together with you to move past any health blocks and get you feeling your best again!

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Veganuary: Is a vegan diet best for the planet?

For anyone who has known me a while, you’ll know that in 2015 I decided to go vegan. I had been thinking about it for a while after seeing the documentary Cowspiracy which explains the impact of animal agriculture on the planet. I was shocked at the statistics about greenhouse gas emissions from ruminating animals and also at the amount of land used to grow crops to feed animals raised for their meat. I hadn’t realised before that a lot of the deforestation in the Amazon is to grow soy and grains to feed these animals and that it takes 7kg grain to produce just 1kg of meat. I’ve always been interested in environmental protection and sustainability so at the time it made total sense to me to switch to a completely vegan diet.

Now 5 years later, I am no longer vegan but this morning I listened to a podcast from the Guardian titled Is veganism the future? which talked about the environmental benefits of switching to a vegan diet. It was originally aired in January 2020 due to the rising popularity of Veganuary, going vegan for the month of January. Last year I finished my Master’s degree in public health nutrition and for my dissertation project I decided to research environmentally sustainable diets. Listening to the podcast this morning it got me thinking again about whether a vegan diet is best for the environment and we should all be going vegan in the future to save our planet. Here I want to share some of the ways that animal agriculture affects the environment and give you some things to think about if you are considering changing your diet.

Environmental impact of animal agriculture at a glance

  • Large amounts of land and water are needed to grow grains to feed animals
  • Often the land used to grow these crops comes from deforestation in places like the amazon rainforest
  • Ruminant animals such as cows and sheep release huge amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas with 21x the global warming potential as carbon dioxide
  • Badly managed farms can cause pollution through run off of animal wastes and chemicals
  • Fertilizers used to maximise production of feed crops emit huge amounts of harmful greenhouse gas emissions such as nitrous oxide
  • Feed crops are often grown on mono-culture farms destroying the natural landscape and biodiversity in these areas

Even though some of the points above also apply to growing of plant-based foods, there’s no denying the evidence that animal products have a significant environmental impact. You can definitely find more sustainable types of animal products, including pasture raised, organic meat and dairy but these products are pretty expensive and not accessible to the majority of people. It is also clear from years of research that, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, even the most sustainably produced meat still has a higher environmental impact than the majority of plant-based protein sources such as beans, lentils and soy. But does this mean that a vegan diet is best for the planet? Not necessarily.

In my research, I found out that it is not as straight forward as “a vegan diet is better for the planet”. An Italian research study on 2018 compared carbon dioxide emissions, land and water use for the real diets of omnivores, vegetarians and vegans. I say real diets because a lot of studies use computer modelling to compare different diets rather than food diaries showing what people actually eat. The study found that yes, on the whole, vegan diets had the lowest environmental impact in terms of carbon dioxide emissions and land use but the difference between the vegetarian and vegan diets were small and on average the vegetarian diets had the lowest water usage of the three group. And another shocking result was that the two participants with the highest environmental impact in the whole study were vegans whose diet consisted mainly of fruit, eek!

And what about dairy products, how do vegan milks compare to dairy in terms of environmental impact? The graph below is from another study in 2018 which again compared carbon dioxide emissions, land use and water consumption this time for different types of dairy-free alternatives vs. dairy milk.

environmental impact dairy-free milk alternatives

Typically, dairy milk does have a much higher environmental impact than dairy alternatives, even rice and almond milk which are known for the amount of water they consume. But I’m not sure whether these figures account for the global warming impact of deforestation to be able to grow huge amounts of soy and almonds in certain parts of the world. Forests are the lungs of our planet, taking in carbon dioxide and converting it to oxygen. When we cut down trees to plant crops, we not only have increased emissions from agricultural processes but we also lose the protective effect of the forests. I don’t think there is a problem with choosing dairy-free alternatives and they can definitely play a role in a sustainable diet. I drink them personally but I do think we have to choose wisely and mindfully.

I’m going to go into the nutrition aspects of the vegan diet in more detail in another post but I will touch here on the fact that dairy-free milks are not equivalent to dairy in terms of protein, minerals and fat-soluble vitamins which are essential to healthy bones and teeth. That’s not to say that you can’t get these things elsewhere on a vegan diet, there are plenty of sources of calcium in the plant-kingdom but I am just pointing out that substituting rice milk for dairy you could run into nutritional deficiencies down the line. Personally, I am no longer vegan for this reason although I still eat a mostly plant-based diet with plenty of vegan meals.

In reality there are many aspects to a sustainable diet including where the food is grown, how it is transported and packaged, whether it is eaten in season or not and what methods of farming are used. Of course, it’s possible to eat an environmentally sustainable diet if you consume a lot of staple foods such as grains and potatoes that are grown in your region but if you are eating avocados, mangos and almond milk on a daily basis like the typical vegan influencer then you are kidding yourself! This isn’t a criticism to anyone doing this as there have been times when I bought lots of imported fruit and almond milk too, I’m just highlighting that sometimes we need to look at the bigger picture. Another major issue that is often overlooked when we think about sustainable diets is not what we eat but what we don’t eat. No matter what the type of food, vegan or animal products, if it goes into the bin as food waste that has a massive impact on the environment.

So, in summary, no I don’t think that a vegan diet is always best for the environment or the only way to eat sustainably. Although if you do want to adopt a vegan diet you can definitely reduce your environmental footprint by doing so if you do your research beforehand. I do think though that you can make a significant impact by cutting down the amount of animal products you consume, or even adopting a pescatarian or vegetarian diet without having to take “extreme” measure of going 100% vegan. If you’re interested in reading more about sustainable diets and how you can make your diet more environmentally friendly, I’d recommend checking out the British Dietetic Association One Blue Dot project which sets out guidelines for a healthy, environmentally sustainable diet. They do recommend significantly reducing meat consumption as well as eating less foods imported by plane and eating local and seasonal produce.

Over to you…

Thank you for taking the time to read this post, let me know in the comments below if you found this article interesting and whether you have thought about going vegan for environmental reasons. Like this post and follow my blog if you want me to share more about this area of research. It’s not something I usually write about here but it is something I am interested in! If you want to read my research publication on “A cross-sectional survey of the readiness of consumers to adopt an environmentally sustainable diet” you can find the pdf here.

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