Online Diet Groups: Diet Cults, Bad Advice and Woo

Dietitian Debunking Diet Myth Calgary

I have a confession to make. I’ve been watching you. Well, maybe not all of you but some of you. But...before you get alarmed, let me clarify. For the past few months I’ve been lurking (sorry, that still sounds creepy, doesn’t it) in various online diet groups. Observing. You see, as a dietitian I think it’s important to understand what’s going on in the diet world. As such, I decided to join various online groups that focused on specific diets to learn about the diets themselves, their challenges, the positive aspects and what the general conversation is going on about them.

So, a little more about groups I was observing. The groups I joined were from all over the spectrum of dietary ideologies. From ketogenic, vegan ketogenic, paleo, whole food plant-based (WFPB), intermittent fasting, to fruitarian and raw paleo (yup, that's a thing). To clarify, this article isn’t really a commentary about the diets themselves but of the observations which came from monitoring the groups as a whole, and perhaps more accurately, the culture of these diets and online diet communities. Even though many aspects of these diets differ, there were a number of similarities of which are discussed below. 

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DIET GROUPS OR DIET CULTS?

What do I mean by ‘diet cults’? Well, I'll explain further.

A general observation in these online groups is that there is a level of extreme passion behind these dietary dogmas. It also seems that the more intricate a diet is or the more rules it has, the greater level of devotion is present in its followers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m passionate about nutrition and passion is usually good. I love that people value their health and are thinking about food in a healing capacity BUT often the level of passion in these groups is blinding. 

These diet groups usually have some sort of a diet ‘guru’ or expert that can do no wrong. Any questioning of said guru’s theories or methods gets followers on the defensive. The thing is, we should always be questioning nutrition and diet. ALWAYS. A real nutrition expert knows that our current knowledge base is just the tip of the iceberg. Those who are 100% certain that their diet has all the answers is peddling bullsh*t. Remember that.

There seems to be a certain amount of ‘information regurgitation’ among avid diet followers in these groups. The same advice and diet mantras get told again and again by people who, for the most part, have very little nutrition knowledge. The problem with this is that the accuracy of the information varies quite a bit. Sometimes it's decent advice while other times it's way off the mark. This bad information gets repeated and passed down from dieter to dieter, as if it were gospel. This bad information, once rooted in these diet communities as a truth, is very hard to challenge. 

It seems that those who have been more “successful” in these diets (i.e. those who have lost the most weight or are the most fit) are given higher authority and credibility when it comes to the advice they give, independent of their nutrition background. Remember, just because a diet works for one person it doesn’t mean they know more or should be giving advice on complex nutrition or medical issues.

Many people prescribed to certain dietary dogmas find it hard think outside of their diet beliefs. Many diet followers believe that their diet is the one true diet and that people who follow other dietary patterns are grossly misinformed and uneducated on such matters. Sounds oddly cult-like, doesn’t it?

There are definitely clusters of vocal people in each diet group that fail to look outside of their own dietary practices to see that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to eating. No one diet works for everyone. We know that genetics can play a role in how people metabolize nutrients differently. We know that there are many cultural, emotional, behavioural, and economic factors that influence eating patterns. And because we know this, we know that no one diet can or will work for everyone. I get that people are passionate about their diets. Perhaps they’ve been on a bunch of diets throughout their life and have finally found one that works for them and that is fantastic. However, no one eating journey is the same, no one body is the same and we all need to look outside of what works for us and accept that no one diet is king.

 

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ONE DIET WILL TREAT EVERY MALADY

No, no and no. Again, this sort of thinking goes back to believing that one diet will work for everyone. The idea that one diet will solve all health issues is very wrong but is a consistent theme among so many of these diet focus communities.

A number of times I observed someone describing a health condition or symptom that they were experiencing and an answer that would pop up repeatedly is that diet X (X = paleo, ketogenic, fasting, vegan etc.) will “heal” them. If they are already doing said diet, they just need to follow it more closely or for a longer amount of time for their malady to be “cured”.

I am a firm believer that diet plays a huge role in some health conditions or at least can reduce distressing symptoms. Believe me, I would absolutely love for food to be the answer to every health concern. There is huge power in food BUT not every health condition is diet related. It just isn’t. If someone tries to feed you that line then they are feeding you nonsense (and probably trying selling you something at the same time).

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DIETS ARE ALL CONSUMING

Now I fully understand that my sample of people from these online diet groups is pretty skewed but from my observations there seems to be a lot of people who cling onto specific diets and follow them with their whole being. For some people, these diets have a whole culture attached to them. They live and breathe these diets and are very vocal about them. But hey, when you find something that works for you, why wouldn’t you want to embrace it? Well, the problem really arises when a way of eating takes over your life.

Nutrition and food are important but they should not consume your whole being. Any way of eating the creeps into all aspects of your life is not healthy, even if the diet itself is healthy. If your social life and connections with friends and family are affected, then it’s too much. If you worry about going on vacation because you won’t be able to follow a diet, then it’s too much. If you have to “break” and have a “cheat day”, then it’s too much. A healthy diet allows some flexibility. You shouldn’t feel the need to cheat on it. If this is the case, it just won’t work in the long run. Remember, a diet should not consume your all thoughts. There should be no shame, guilt or stress if you “fall off the wagon”. It’s just food, yo.

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FOOD FEAR

Oh my lord, the food fear circulating in these diet communities is rampant. The internet is rife with food fear. The funny thing is, depending on your diet philosophy, the food fears are different and contradictory. Some groups fear carbohydrates (and love fat), some fear fat (and love carbohydrates), while others fear any kind of food that has been processed, conventionally farmed, contains GMOs, is a nightshade, contains lectins, is pasteurized, is from an animal, contains soy, is acidic or contains hard to pronounce ingredients and so on. The longer you spend in diet obsessed groups, the more foods you begin to fear. Once one person starts talking about a food negatively, they often pass on that fear to someone else. This constant talk of good vs. bad food is just not good for your mental health. Food should not be feared (that is, unless you have a serious allergy to one!). The most troubling thing about food fears is that most are unwarranted and have little or no scientific basis. What's more, is that because most people have no formal nutrition education, it can be hard to decipher if information is accurate or not which leads to unnecessary anxiety and exclusion of foods.  

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DISTRUST OF MAINSTREAM HEALTH ADVICE

Online there is so much distrust of any mainstream medical advice, treatments and health practitioners. This distrust can have dangerous repercussions. When the seeds of mistrust are planted for anything to do with mainstream health (including nutrition), it leaves vulnerable people open to potentially dangerous advice, and (often) loss of hard earned money. What’s also troubling is not necessarily the existence of skepticism of mainstream health and nutrition guidelines but the blind support and trust for anything to do with alternative health. If you are going to question mainstream health advice, you should also be critical of their alternative counterparts. This just doesn’t seem to be the case. It puzzles me why there is so much trust with things that have no research, regulations or accountability backing them up. Critical thinking skills seem to take a back seat when some people delve into the world of non-mainstream health advice (or what some people might call 'woo'). Seriously, how can someone distrust every bit of mainstream advice but embrace a clickbaity health article from mothergaiatruth.net, or take nutrition advice from someone with a sketchy online diploma (or no credentials, at all)?

I’m not saying that all non-mainstream nutrition advice is bunk either because it isn’t. We just need to be a little more critical of all information that comes our way. Aquiring diet info from some random dude commenting on the internet probably isn’t the best idea. Look for credentials, experience, someone who backs up their claims with legit sources and someone who isn’t trying to sell you snake oil. Be critical of everyone trying to offer you advice, especially on the internet. 

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BAD (AND SOMETIMES DANGEROUS) ADVICE

As a dietitian, I am very reserved about giving advice to people on the internet. Without knowing their whole medical history, diet struggles and any number of other things which can affect health, advice is sometimes hard (and irresponsible) to give. Those without a proper background in dietetics or nutritional science often do not see the big picture and fail to consider all the confounding factors which can influence someone’s health. While some nutrition advice is harmless, some non-educated advice could lead to:

  • Nutrient deficiencies
  • Drug-nutrient or nutrient-nutrient interactions
  • Energy malnutrition and unhealthy weight loss
  • Nutrient toxicities (especially when supplements are recommended)
  • Triggering or worsening disordered eating
  • Unnecessary food avoidance
  • Exacerbation of current medical conditions

Of course, individuals asking random internet people for advice also need to take some responsibility. You really should vet those from which you are taking health advice. However, there are many vulnerable people out there who are desperately searching for answers to health concerns. These people are very suggestible and more likely to try unproven strategies to “heal themselves”. What makes it more challenging, in these online groups, is that not all the information given is bad. Some people are quite educated and offer solid nutrition guidance. This makes it harder to decipher the good from the bad advice. Furthermore, I certainly don’t think that the majority of bad advice is given out of malice. Sure, some people are out there to sell products that are untested or don’t work. However, for the most part, the sketchy advice is often just doled out by those without a general understanding of nutrition and who don’t understand the greater implications of their poor advice.

Curious about some of the bad advice and comments I saw? Here are some examples:  

  • Recommending carrot juice as a replacement for baby formula because juiced carrots have “nearly the same nutrients as milk” - NO. NO THEY DO NOT. DON’T DO THIS!
  • Bloating and gas from starting a plant based diet is just your body detoxing. - No, it’s not. Anyone with a basic understanding of nutrition would not say this.
  • Stating that pickle juice, apple cider vinegar, collagen or pink salt is the cure to just about everything someone complains about. - According to the internet these are are somehow magical and will solve ALL health problems. 
  • Stating that if you ‘fall off the diet wagon’, you set yourself back for weeks - Is that really helpful and supportive advice?
  • Suggesting diet can replace an antidepressant medication - This is dangerous advice. Never suggest someone stop an antidepressant without help from their doctor.
  • Not recommending someone with chest pains go get it checked out. - The only responsible advice in this situation is to tell them to go to the doctor. Really. 
  • Menstruation isn’t “natural” and eating a raw food diet will decrease menstruation frequency (and this was suppose to be good thing). - So much wrong here, I can't even. 
  • “Don’t listen to doctors, they are stupid” - Great advice coming from some random person without a medical degree. Argh! 

I’d also like to address the fact that mainstream nutrition guidelines haven’t always been 100% correct. For this reason, I get why there is some mistrust of mainstream nutrition. That doesn’t mean that ALL mainstream nutrition advice should be discounted nor does it mean that nutrition professionals, like Registered Dietitians, can’t think outside the box with respect to their recommendations. I like to think of nutritional science like a puzzle, with a number of pieces either missing or jammed in the wrong spot. We are often on the right track with our assumptions of nutrition but in need of some fine tuning. As such, it’s best to try to get nutrition advice from someone who is able to assess current nutrition information (or that "incomplete puzzle") and who is able to consider individual needs while analyzing risk vs. benefit of non-traditional diet approaches.

 

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I will say that for the most part, I found the exercise of being an observer in these diet groups very interesting and enlightening. I love that people are trying to take charge of their health and value the role food in well-being. There are definitely members of these online diet communities that are supportive and provide reasonable (and safe) advice. As well, there are aspects of all of these diets that have redeeming qualities (except Raw Paleo because, well,...raw meat. Yuck!). That being said, you do need to be cautious when engaging in online diet communities as they may not always be as helpful as they appear, and may, in some cases provide advice that is counterproductive to your health. If you have health concerns, or are thinking of changing your diet drastically, it’s probably best to talk to a knowledgeable and credible health professional (may I suggest a Registered Dietitian, such as myself?).