Are you one of those people?
You know what I mean. The people who talk in hushed whispers about processed foods and refined sugars and saving the “non-believers”; the people who are never seen without their beloved kale & coconut water smoothie in hand in their activewear as they head to their 10.30am yoga class; the people who buy everything with a “superfood” label on it and can be seen giving a sanctimonious sigh and an eye roll every time someone suggests eating something… *gasp*…. non-organic!
Those people are what I like to call the Kale Cult, a.k.a. Food Snobs & Food Wankers. And you might be one of them.
** Now, before I go any further – I want to make a disclaimer here. I’m not in any way demonising those of us who happen to enjoy kale smoothies or yoga. I have nothing against those who decide, for their own reasons, to follow a paleo or organic diet or to moderate their intake of processed foods and refined sugars. At the end of the day, the individual’s health is the individual’s business, and it’s up to all of us to make those health decisions for ourselves based on whatever research, consultation with our doctors and what personally resonates with us. So, this argument is not at all aimed at the average Joe or Jane who’s just trying to improve their lives with some dietary changes. **
This argument is intended for those of us who treat food as a religion.
For those who see food as an exclusive subset of a lifestyle that has strict guidelines before a “member” can be welcomed in; the kind of religion that’s not exactly known for its friendliness and compassion towards other religious groups.
Becoming a member of the Kale Cult starts off innocently enough – in fact, most have only the best intentions and a desire to improve their health. It goes a little something like this:
It starts with wanting to make dietary and lifestyle changes… perhaps you were referred to a celebrity cookbook by a friend, perhaps you read an article about the benefits of eliminating a food group and decided that it might be good for you. You ease in, you dip your toes into the pool. You start buying the suggested foods, reading the suggested blogs and fitting into the lifestyle. The more you’re exposed to the brand around the lifestyle, you become blatantly aware that there are Food Wankers among you. You see their snarls as they’re forced to communicate with those who don’t agree with their nutritional ideals; you watch them berate their friends every time they try and enjoy a hot chip.
“I’ll never be that bad,” you tell yourself.
But, sure enough, you start to become that person. The more time you spend with Food Wankers, the more you’re exposed to the idea that nutritional guidelines should be treated as the gospel and everyone who dares not to follow those ideals is a non-believer that must be converted… the more you become one of them. Before you know it, you’re a fully-fledged Food Wanker. You’ve got the uniform. You know the handbook cover to cover. You’re armed with an arsenal of celebrity quotes at your disposal every time someone asks about your diet. You’re not afraid to tell friends and family why they’re irresponsible for poisoning themselves, and you care not for sparing feelings! You’re so deeply ingrained in the Kale Cult, that you might not be able to see that your behaviour is problematic, judgemental and ultimately, lacking understanding of the diversity of the human body and it’s complex needs – at a collective and individual level.
Recognise a little of yourself in the above?
You’re not alone. We’re in the era of celebrity “food gurus” and today’s fad diets are no different from the fad diets of a decade ago in terms of the methodology.
Instead of carbs and fat, we’re now demonising gluten and sugar.
But, the largest problem with these diets lies not in their actual nutritional guidelines (which too, can be damaging) but in their “all or nothing” thinking, brand marketing and their clever use of fear mongering to entirely demonise foods and convince a generation to think that it’s the new “cool” thing to eliminate entire food groups from your diet – even if your individual nutritional requirements will see no direct benefit, or will be adversely affected.
The problem lies in how these nutritional guidelines aren’t just limited to what you eat… for those who follow them, they can become a way of life.
The marketing is selling you the lifestyle and it’s no longer a matter of reducing your intake of a certain food group, it’s about being seen to be doing so. It’s about reciting, verbatim, pseudo-science sound bytes from paid celebrity endorsements; spreading misinformation about how the body actually works and ignoring the fact that no one dietary choice is 100% right for every single person.
They’re not just diets. They’re ideologies.
Here’s where that gets risky:
Foods aren’t meant to be demonised. And when we start labelling foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and ‘saviours’ and ‘evil’…
Well, we’re in dangerous territory, my friend!
And a diet or lifestyle that involves selectively denying your body nutrients that it needs to function at optimum level as based upon a psychological rejection of the notion of neutrality of food is ultimately closer to disordered thinking than many of us would care to admit.
When we then start trying to push those ideals upon others who don’t particularly agree with our nutritional decisions, who know that our particular nutritional decisions aren’t right for their lifestyle or who just don’t particularly feel like being lectured every time they go to take a bite of their lunch… people can get a little defensive.
And rightly so.
But, members of the Kale Cult assume that this resistance is a sign that the “non-believers” need a saviour more than ever, and push even harder, thus reducing their attempted recruits’ chance of signing up to the ideology.
Such blind devotion to a food faith is undeniably mentally damaging.
When everything that you believe that you are is so deeply tied to a particular diet’s ideologies, you fall into a ‘this’ vs ‘that’ mentality.
Life becomes about ‘us’ vs ‘them’ and you start to tune out the fact that others have different nutritional needs.
Hell, forget needs. Let’s bring this back to wants, even.
Aside from everyone having different needs, we all have different wants that don’t always correlate with our needs. Sometimes, for various reasons, some people just don’t want to explore nutrition plans for themselves.
In fact, pushing someone who’s not inclined to be concerned about their health too hard in favour of a highly exclusive nutritional club (rather than towards balance and moderation, overall), may actually have the reverse effect of completely turning them off healthy lifestyles in general.
In following such a limiting model of nutritional beliefs that’s based solely on a fad, nutritional choices are no longer just nutritional choices, but entire ways of life; a justification for cultural battles and condemnation of any opposing opinions based purely on moral superiority.
Our nutritional choices start to become inextricably linked with our self-worth; the nutritional “brands” we subscribe to are seen as just as identity-defining as the brands that we wear.
The Kale Cult becomes ‘us’ and everything else becomes ‘them’.
Ultimately, this holds as little benefit for our minds as it does for our bodies.
We all need to be aware that how we eat does not define us, as people. We need to know that eating paleo doesn’t make you “superior” to those who eat processed foods. We need to know that eliminating sugar doesn’t make you a more highly evolved human than someone who occasionally enjoys dessert.
We need to know that assigning emotionally charged connotations to our food, even under the guise of health, is achieving the opposite of its purpose.
We’re all different. That’s okay. Food and exercise aren’t religions, and we need to stop treating them as such.
Pete Evans can’t tell you about your individual body, Sarah Wilson can’t tell you about your individual body and neither can I.
The only person who can help you make that decision is your doctor who, after surveying your overall health and history, can help you make an informed and nutritionally safe & sound choice about what’s best for your specific needs.
So, if you’re thinking of changing up your eating habits and focusing on your health, I beg of you – don’t even think about joining the Kale Cult.
Don’t get your individual nutritional advice from a celebrity, who has no idea of your genetics, predispositions, external lifestyle variables or nutritional needs at a personal level.
Don’t believe every hyped-up report you see on daytime TV.
Know that health is everything to do with inclusivity and optimising the function of your mind and body, and nothing to do with shaming or vilifying others for making different choices based on their own nutritional requirements.
Keep your eyes on your own plate, and no one gets hurt.