SWalk the aisles of any bookstore and you’ll find a wealth of diet books, from general “healthy eating” cookbooks to specific or clinical how-to books focusing on various diets, such as gluten-free and ketogenic. If we had to read them all, it would indeed be very confusing. Some ban fats, while others warn against carbs and sugars; some encourage a restricted range of particular foods, while others specifically prohibit certain items. In a year or two, these books will be available at your local thrift store, priced at $1 each. That’s because, like the dietary recommendations that came before them, many of these dietary guidelines will soon be discontinued, either because they don’t work or because they’ve been superseded by the next popular diet.
In Anxious eaters: why we fall for fad diets, me and my co-author Kima Cargill examine fad diets from the perspective of anthropology, psychology, and nutrition to understand why they’re popular, why they often fail, and why they’re being superseded by the next diet in the world. day. While most diet reviews focus on diet content and how it affects the physical body, we wanted to understand the social context of diets. Regimes do not become socially salient in a vacuum; diets, body practices and nutritional belief systems are shaped by cultural narratives. They are almost always of their time and place and are rational when examined within a cultural system.
As an example, the paleo diet has gone through many cultural tropes to reach its current ideological state, because an ideology is exactly what it has become. Paleo began in the 1930s with the belief that ancient or tribal diets could restore health with whole, natural foods perfectly suited to the biological body. From the 1960s through the 1990s, academic data on the diets of ancient and modern hunter-gatherers further emphasized the traditional reliance on whole foods with meat as a source of protein and few processed foods consumed. In recent decades, the diet has morphed into a cultural powerhouse: the earlier Atkins diet, meat-centric, low-carb, high-fat, adopted paleo principles, then gave credence to fad keto. The emphasis on whole, natural foods overlaps with “clean” and gluten-free diets, supports the Whole30 fad, and even validates beliefs about so-called food addiction, as targeted and forbidden foods are labeled unsafe and addictive. The paleo concept remains popular because it easily transitions into and supports other dietary fads. Because so many of these principles overlap, it’s now possible to buy cookbooks that promise to fulfill the whole list of dietary goals: clean, keto, paleo, Whole30, “easy,” and “family friendly.”
Paleo is also popular because the cultural meanings attached to “paleo” signify social status, identity, and well-being. Many people believe that evolutionary nutrition promises optimal health, but piecing together ancient diets is difficult due to the incomplete nature of the archaeological record and the fact that much of the diverse omnivorous diet of humans never fossilizes. not. The practice of paleo encourages women and families to adopt the diet to ensure healthier children, so paleo becomes part of good parenting and a form of virtue signaling. In addition, because the paleo diet is expensive, it also allows the wealthiest to enjoy a privileged diet while validating class barriers; it formally prohibits processed foods, starches, sugars and fast foods presumed to constitute the diet of the poor. And likely because of the emphasis on meat eating, paleo has been embraced by bodybuilders and by men who belong to male-dominated, alt-right, or white-supremacist groups. The mashup of paleo, keto, and meat-eating seems to appeal to ambitious men who want to be seen as controlling, hegemonic, and manly.
In other words, the meaning of paleo now extends far beyond the idea that natural foods can heal a damaged modern body; instead, some believe that a paleo lifestyle transforms the eater into a member of an idealized social category – a powerful man, an economically prosperous citizen or a good parent. Food logic has shifted from biological to cultural, and at every node of social performance, diet meets psychological needs.
When looked at together, it’s clear that fad diets aren’t really about food, but they do signal group membership and self-identity, two qualities essential to the psychological health of most people. humans.
Each of the fad diets we review in Anxious eaters meets socially important goals. They provide identity, as what we eat serves as a symbol to others of who we are and who we wish to be. Fad diets offer status because they rely on the performance of a perfected self and often require expensive ingredients that signify wealth. Adopting these diets provides a sense of bodily purity by consuming supposedly healthy foods and avoiding those deemed unhealthy. And it demonstrates a capacity for self-control, a value highly valued in American culture. Because of this control, fad diets promise transformation into the identity one desires, the body one cherishes, and the lifestyle one aspires to. Finally, most of these diets retain their legitimacy through convergence – their precepts are similar, so once you’ve tried one, you’re ready for the next. Paleo encourages belief in keto, gluten-free, and clean diets. When looked at together, it’s clear that fad diets aren’t really about food, but they do signal group membership and self-identity, two qualities essential to the psychological health of most people. humans. And because they fulfill social (if not nutritional) goals, fad diets make cultural sense.
Janet Chrzan is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Nutritional Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.