When did one’s diet become a religion? Watching a low carb vs. high carb debate is like watching the Crusades; no horses or swords, just powerpoint slides, and straw man arguments. After two, mind-numbing hours you end up with a bunch of nothing. No opinions are changed and everyone’s time is wasted. Everybody goes back to their cult-like tribes, ferociously posting their gripes on the internet. Each diet presents its own rules, canon, methods of cooking, and the timing of meals. If you were to read a diet book published today without looking at its title, you’d think you were reading from a religious text. With each new study that appears, the blogosphere explodes with “PROOF!” headlines, celebrating their vindication. That is until another one comes out refuting that diet. Then, the bloggers—or druids—return to their keyboards, attempting to debunk the study; confirmation bias and cherry-picking at its finest. It isn’t difficult to sit here and continue to expose the various diets and their “clans,” or annihilate the authors of their sacred books, so I’ve decided to approach it from a different angle. Can all this be a Good thing?
I am fascinated by the “Road to Damascus” moment that some people experience. I refer to Saul of Tarsus, who later became the Apostle Paul after seeing the risen Christ on his way to Damascus. It can only be described as a miraculous moment that turned a hard-boiled, Christian-hunting Pharisee into the man who penned nearly half of the New Testament. It’s amazing that the person who witnessed—perhaps ordered—the execution of Saint Stephen, wrote some of history’s most powerful statements on love. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians rivals Shakespeare for the “most quoted” words during wedding ceremonies. See 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 and Sonnet 18 for a refresher.
There are countless stories of faith-based conversions. Cassius Clay converted to Islam and became Muhammad Ali. Malcolm X, following his pilgrimage to Mecca, left the Nation of Islam after he awakened to their corrupt and divisive ideology. To show their benevolence, they assassinated Malcolm in 1965. Incidentally, Ali sided with the NOI leader Elijah Muhammad during the fallout, which Ali deeply regretted later in life. Marilyn Monroe and Sammy Davis, Jr. converted to Judaism. St. Augustine, John Wayne, and even Oscar Wilde—a hedonist—converted to Catholicism. Wilde’s first grave had an inscription from the Book of Job, a book famous for its titular character experiencing great suffering but staying loyal and faithful to God.
What compels someone to convert from one faith to another, from no religious views to faith, or vice-versa? A common reason is known as “rock-bottom.” It is a well-known phrase in the addiction-recovery world. It is not easily definable since it is different and unique to each person. It usually points to the lowest point in a person’s life, when it seems like things couldn’t get any worse. Many people, when drowning inside misery’s waters, find salvation in the form of faith. Their new faith not only rescues them but gives them a life of purpose. A famous example is Rock legend, Alice Cooper. He bit the heads off chickens—a myth—and sang about blowing up his school. He came close to death on multiple occasions due to alcoholism, until he found Christianity. Cooper would likely argue that it found him. He’s still shock-rocking but has added evangelism to his list of duties.
In health, rock-bottom can be reached without substance abuse. It can take the form of morbid obesity or a cardiac event. It’s the catalyst that says, “I need to do something. I don’t want to die.” Their life preserver may come in the form of Atkins, Protein Power, or Vegetarianism. Do you know what happens next? The diet saves their life. As a result, the person develops a faithful relationship to the diet. Can you blame them? Bernard Malamud, in his book, The Natural, wrote “We have two lives, Roy, the life we learn with and the life we live with after that. Suffering is what brings us toward happiness.” It’s the diet, regardless of its scientific backing, that serves as the tipping point between a life of suffering and a life of happiness. Therefore, it’s not unusual to see a formerly obese person, or someone recovering from a heart attack, dedicate their days in a pseudo-worship of their new dietary choices. It’s not uncommon to see these transformed people attempt to evangelize their friends and family into the diet that saved their lives. Wouldn’t any of us?
Guilt and compassion are powerful human emotions. They are strong enough to spur-on certain behaviors and put a halt to others. This was the case for Karl Schneider, a member of the Hitler Youth. Karl joined the Nazi Air Force at 18 years-old, with the intention of helping to fulfill the goal of a thousand-year Reich, until he saw the Stormtroopers massacre a group of Jewish people. The images and sounds he saw shook him to his soul. Even possessing a soul was unacceptable amongst the Hitler Youth. From the maniacal Chancellor, himself: “I want to raise a generation of young people devoid of a conscience, imperious, relentless and cruel.” Karl began to disobey orders and sabotage bombs. Over the next twenty years, he gave away two-thirds of his salary to Jewish orphans. He eventually moved to Israel and asked to be converted. It would be an understatement to say that the Rabbis were jolted by this man’s story, but they allowed him to study, convert to Judaism and become an Israeli Citizen, under the name Reuel Abraham.
Have you ever seen videos of animals in horrid conditions, unceremoniously slaughtered for consumption? If you have, you either blocked it from your memory completely, switched to humanely farmed food, or became a vegan. There are those that intentionally use that footage to stir specific emotions on the viewer. If we are being honest, we would call it what it is: an atrocity. Our intestines squirm to find a hiding place when presented with the noise and visions of what we saw. Is it any surprise when someone swears off meat because of the trauma? Clarisse Starling tried to rescue the lambs from slaughter in Silence of the Lambs, to no avail. Millions of people across the country attempt to deafen the sound of the screams by turning to a vegan or vegetarian diet. There are those that do it solely for the “health benefits,” but I’ve yet to see a compelling argument for that. If an alien race came to Earth and visited a KFC chicken farm, they would ask, “What sort of barbarism is this?” Insert your favorite martian-voice, here.
A more practical reason for conversion is the idea of Contrast. “If I started living in a such-and-such manner, what about be the result?” If a person’s current lifestyle, labeled A, has delivered a specific outcome, what would lifestyle B yield? I don’t wish to give the impression that all “good” conversions take place in one direction. There are many people who grow up within the framework of the church or synagogue, who are unmoved and dissatisfied with their course of life. They may find that Buddhism or Naturalism provides a lifestyle that brings them more of what they seek. I left my childhood faith of Islam and found liberation in atheism as a teen. The opposite also takes place, for example, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and CS Lewis abandoned atheism for Christianity. Lewis went on to become the 20th Century’s greatest Christian author. I left atheism in 2015. When the person experiences a tremendous improvement between Lifestyle A and Lifestyle B, why go back?
I believe the idea of Contrast provides the strongest urge for dietary conversions. It’s the contrast, not the diet. Every month, new diet books get published by the truckload, and every month, new “diet sects” are formed, complete with their private FaceBook groups. The Contrast Phenonemon explains this. The diet of the average person is sloppy and unstructured. Meal timing, order, quality, and quantity lack coherence from day-to-day. Breakfasts, lunches, and dinners are either on-the-go or lacking nutritional value. Snacks are limited to whatever sweets are shared around the office or what looks good at the Starbucks counter. It’s possible that they do not feel any major adverse effects. Well, until it’s too late—see the rock-bottom paragraph. Usually, they come to terms that fatigue, poor sleep, higher body weight, and body fat are “normal.” Then, for one reason or another, they stumble upon a diet book—perhaps a stocking stuffer put there as a hint. The typical diet book is predictable in its construction. They create rigidity through allowable and “forbidden” foods. They control portions and use the word “unlimited” for non-impact foods like vegetables and tea. Usually, the back end is filled with recipes and a few pages on “how to get started.” Essentially, they provide a structure where there was no previous structure. Normally, when someone begins one of these diets, the feedback is raving—five stars. “I feel great!” “I haven’t felt this good in years!” “I’m never hungry!” How can all these different diets illicit the same responses? It’s the contrast between Diet A—no structure—and Diet B— structure. If you live in the dark, the first ray of light is blinding.
What should we make of all this? It’s hard to look at a person who “finds God,” begins going to church or temple, volunteering for charities, praying or meditating nightly, and is happier overall, with a cynical eye. It can be done, but to what end? Why should we bother pointing out any flaws? If they are not a danger to themselves or others, what’s the point? Some people are indifferent to faith and don’t care, but there are others who live to ridicule it. It’s silly and unnecessary. Is it the same with diet? In the fitness industry, everyone is jostling for position inside the market. Sometimes the loudest and most ludicrous person peddling the most laughable gets noticed. There are others—myself included—who relish poking fun at it all. But, if the diet helps someone, somewhere, is it worth ridiculing? Some diets are a danger to others, and the authors know it. Those vermin deserve a royal smackdown. For an innocent laugh, they are all fair game for a good trolling. But, I can’t help but think of the people who are loyal to their Paleo cookbooks, their Vegan ethics, or even the can-you-top-this attitude of Flexible Dieters. They’re trying, and bless them for doing so.
For the most part, faiths attempt to teach us about ethics, values, and virtues. Diet books, for the most part, strive to teach better food choices, cooking habits, and portion control. Yes, they don’t always get it right, and unfortunately, some followers go off the deep-end. Being a good person of principle is not drastically different from being a good dieter: let go of the ego and the air of superiority, be consistent, practice daily, understand you’ll make mistakes, and Be Good.