From personal health to common humanity, biased food choices hurt us all.
As humans we are pack animals who seek both community and a strong personal identity. The beliefs we develop over time shape both of these aspects of our lives: They build our identities and lead us to communities who feel the same. The advent of the internet has given us new ways to connect, but with misinformation rampant the costs of community membership can be steep.
When blind beliefs begin to shape your community and identity, you’ve fallen into a trap (and one that’s hard to escape). The mere concept of nutrition beliefs is a walking contradiction: Nutrition is a science based on facts and an evolving understanding of how things work. By contrast, operating via nutrition beliefs means you are living a biased reality, and bias by nature leaves you susceptible to negative outcomes.
When it comes to nutrition, ask yourself: Is the objective to derive a sense of comfort from having a defined set of rules at all times? Or would you achieve more by adjusting your rules to your evolving personal needs?
If you’ve labelled yourself into a box and find yourself identifying as your diet of choice (for example if you use the phraseology “I am Keto/Carnivore/Vegan/Paleo/etc.”), then this article is for you. Let’s take a closer look at the pitfalls of nutrition beliefs and how to facilitate choices that will truly serve you best.
You are Free, but Your Mind is Not
Before we dive into the real problem at hand, let’s address the psychology of why nutrition beliefs often supersede hard facts: You might think you make your own choices, but do you know why you have the opinions that drive those decisions? Let’s assess:
- Corporate Advertising. From a young age, we’re peppered with ads and subliminal messaging. It all starts with things like breakfast cereal ads that play during kid’s shows when we’re young. Do kids who live without television beg their parents for Fruit Loops? You didn’t choose to love that cereal, you were told by the big screen in the living room that you’d like it, that parents who love their kids provide it, and then you got hooked by the sugar and chemical composition when you ate it. Then there are fast food ads, car ads, beer ads, you name it; your personality and interests are shaped by the content you consume.
- Internet algorithms, click funnels & cookies. When you use Google or Social media, every topic you search/follow/like will lead to subsequent ads/posts on the same/similar topics. The content you initially search for leads to more of the same being presented to you in a seemingly organic fashion. This is how strong biases are built, because it’s easy to get caught in an echo chamber with only one side of an argument being presented.
- The Illusory Truth Effect: Continuing on the point above, the more we hear something, the more we believe it to be true. If you surround yourself only with people/media that share similar opinions, your beliefs will only become more ingrained over time even if they are not true or serving your health.
Furthermore, the longer you identify in a certain way, the more likely you are to get locked into this dogma. This is the science of a 'sunk cost':
“The amount of time already spent on a task influences human choice about whether to continue. This dedicated time, known as the 'sunk cost', reduces the likelihood of giving up the pursuit of a reward, even when there is no indication of likely success.“
Essentially, the more time, effort, and money you devote to a certain identity or nutritional philosophy, the less likely you will be to make a change, even in the face of new evidence. You’ll think of your relationships (both made and lost), your social media posts, your “tribe”, and the reputation you’ve created. Doubling-down protects you from losing what you currently have, and from having to admit that you may have been wrong. When it comes to nutrition beliefs, staying devoted to a sunk cost checks two major boxes for people:
→ It ensures continued inclusion in a community and
→ The community provides the constant reassurance that your beliefs are indeed true (hello from the top of the Dunning-Kruger curve!)
Still not sure if your beliefs are holding you back?
- 57% of people classify themselves to be in very good/excellent health, yet 71% of the population is overweight and 43% are obese. Clearly, a lot of people are confidently overestimating their current health status.
- Only 24% of people believe that all sources of calories are equally likely to cause weight gain. This means that 76% of the population has been convinced- by marketing- that just one single ingredient or nutrient (like sugar or carbs or fat) is responsible for weight gain.
These two stats demonstrate just how out of touch most of us are with the reality of our food choices and health. We want to believe that we’re healthier than we are and we use simple black and white rationalizations to connect the dots. Until we realize we’ve been sold a string of lies, it will be hard to correct our trajectory.
Now that we know how easy it is to get sucked into an echo chamber that serves nobody but the wallets at the top, let’s look at why nutrition beliefs are bad news for the rest of us.
Nutrition Beliefs Degrade the Food Chain & Harm the Environment
Healthy nutrition isn’t fancy, but people love fancy. Vegans revel in fake meat. Paleo dieters embrace grain-free bread. The Dairyphobic go wild for almond/oat/soy/nipple-free milk substitutes.
It doesn’t matter how you slice it, replacement frankenfoods are less nutritious than the real food they're displacing, and production of these foods is universally far worse for the environment. Demanding that whole nutrient-rich foods be processed down into packaged food-like snacks does nothing but create more trash, use more water, and leave our bodies wanting for what it truly needs.
My favourite example of this is fish oil supplements. Fish is healthy, but many people don’t like fish. So now we’re wiping out biodiversity in the oceans to squeeze fishy oils into little pills so that picky eaters can feel good about their joints. The most striking part of their popularity is that omega-3 supplements are still unproven, so we’re overfishing the oceans (and throwing out the good bits) on a hunch. The real problem here isn’t a low Omega-3 intake, it’s an excessively high Omega-6 intake (from processed foods). If inflammation is the concern, forget the supplements and put the focus on eating more real food.
Nutrition Beliefs Increase Social Inequality
Everyone should be entitled to safe, healthy food. But when the rich demand niche-specific processed foods as their “health foods” of choice, where does that leave things like fruits and vegetables, aka the real staples of health?
Driving up demand for fake health foods can only make the costs of actual whole foods higher than they should be. The more the rich have their fancy pseudo-health foods, the more the poor will be without the means to afford fresh whole foods (let alone the overpriced weirdo foods).
It’s to the point now where some of us are deliberately excluding nutrients from our diets under the guise of being healthy or environmentally-sound. Think about that for a second. It is indeed as insane as it sounds, but welcome to the world of hardcore Veganism, Paleo, Carnivore, Keto, or any other restrictive diet. I’m calling myself out here too because I’ve perpetuated this problem in the past. Argue what you want about restriction being good for weight loss, but it is not good (or sustainable) for long-term health.
When fast food and processed junk food is the best bang-for-the-buck option for most people, how can we expect our more marginalized communities to nourish themselves and enhance their healthspan? Yes, this is only scratching the surface on the topic of socioeconomic injustice, but that’s a topic for another day.
Nutrition Beliefs Cause Dissonance and Disease
When you get locked into a dogmatic mindset, you become blind to new evidence that could lead you to change. Your body and intuition could both be screaming at you to alter your course, but you could still find excuses to stay the path; I know this because I’ve lived it myself.
I once felt such conviction for a certain way of eating that I pushed forward with it as gospel. I ignored research papers that spoke to the contrary and cherry-picked others to support my arguments. Eventually though, I couldn’t handle the constant cognitive dissonance and hit a tipping point. I slowly but surely opened my mind to the plausibility of other approaches, I invested in more education, sought contrasting opinions, and listened with objectivity when experts spoke. If I can impart 4 big takeaways from my own journey, they are as follows:
- Plant-based vs. animal-based is not a nutrition debate, it’s a marketing & identity ploy. Yes, eat more plants. But no, replacing meat with copious amounts of almonds or peanuts does not help your body or our planet.
- There is no such thing as the “perfect” diet. Different things work for different people.
- Any diet executed strictly will result in weight loss during the first few weeks. These early results measured by one misleading metric do not guarantee sustainable long-term results or improvements in health. Don’t be fooled by early results.
- Bodies & nutritional needs change over time so if health is important, be present and adapt your habits as your body deems necessary.
This last point is the big one: The rules for the human body change over time. We are all getting older, and as we age a lot of things change: Hormones change, toxic load & stress/trauma accumulate, metabolic rate decreases, food sensitivities can increase, etc. People often tell me that “Diet X” used to work for them but now it doesn’t, and that’s simply because their body has changed.
Why does this matter? When we’re too stubborn to listen to what the body is saying, we live in dissonance and accelerate the risk of developing chronic disease. Poor dietary choices themselves are impactful enough, but when there is also a constant battle happening between the brain and the body, this creates a perfect storm for health problems.
To prioritize your healthspan, forget your nutrition beliefs and open your mind to the daily feedback that you get from your body. If you’re losing energy, hair, breaking nails, chronically tired (or otherwise), know that your body is begging you for change. The answer is not to be “stricter” with your current approach; it is time to rethink your beliefs.
How to Break Free
If you’re locked into nutrition beliefs that aren’t serving you, here’s the path to rehabilitation:
1) Accept that nobody cares
While you may believe that everyone is watching, rest assured: Everybody is looking out for themselves, and nobody is lurking around the corner, waiting for you to break. Further to that: If someone does judge you for changing your choices in an effort to improve your health, ask whether that person is actually a positive influence in your life.
The best way to ease out of this pattern is to reduce time spent on social media, and to stop posting on social media. Once you reduce the amount you post, you’ll realize that nothing in your life has changed: You will still be you, your friends will still be your friends, and you’ll feel a lot less pressure to have to “fit” a certain mold.
2) Explore other arguments and evidence
Rome wasn’t built in a day and beliefs don’t change overnight. But instead of getting all of your information from your social media echo chamber, start to actively seek out other lines of thought.
Instead of scrolling on social media, scroll through research papers on PubMed or otherwise. Google search for arguments against what you currently believe. Start to drip feed in content that you wouldn’t normally peruse, and approach it with a new mindset: One of withholding judgement, both of yourself and of others.
3) Work on being objective and open-minded
This can be a tough transition for anyone who has been locked into a specific ideology for any period of time. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, if you feel good in your body and have great health, there’s nothing to change. But if you’re miserable and your health is in decline, something has to give.
When your instinct is to rebel against a new way of thinking, pause and ask why: Is it because you falsely believe there is only one way to do things?
When you begin to take an action that hasn't been serving your health, pause and be open to making a different choice.
When you start to judge someone for making a choice that goes against your beliefs, remind yourself that we’re all doing our best, and that no plan is perfect for everyone.
The best piece of advice I can offer to fast-track this process is to set an intention every morning when you wake up. Write it down, say it aloud, do what works best for you, but make sure that the first thing you do every morning is set your intention for the day. Something along the lines of:
Today I will keep an open mind and make decisions for my health.
It may seem like nothing, but if you start every day by reminding yourself of what matters most, mindful decisions will happen with greater frequency.
- We all crave identity and community, but from a young age these paths are shaped for us through our social influences and the media we consume.
- Nutrition beliefs are formed from these experiences, but these biases have consequences.
- Specialty diets are unnecessary and have been marketed to us. They are hard on the environment, increase social inequality, and degrade health.
- Nutrition is a science, not a faith, and remaining open to evidence and feedback is the only surefire way avoid the pitfalls of nutrition beliefs.