Review of “Diet Cults” by Matt Fitzgerald

I looked forward to the publication of “Diet Cults” by Matt Fitzgerald after reading and enjoying his books “Racing Weight” and “The Racing Weight Cookbook”. I reviewed “Racing Weight” earlier this year and can highly recommend it and the companion cookbook as general, outcomes-based guides to what sorts of diets work for champion endurance athletes and how you might refine your own diet to help with your competitive endurance endeavors. In these books, Fitzgerald does not poo-poo any specific diet yet goes about substantiating the relevance of a healthy agnostic approach to diet for endurance athletes. The books contain sensible diet advice based on observations of what works for champions. Given that “Racing Weight” is now in a second edition, many others are similarly impressed with the contents of this work.

“Diet Cults” is an attempt by Fitzgerald to bring some rationality to the spectrum of religions that make up the current diet universe. “Food is Religion” is one of the many operative concepts that Fitzgerald discusses and analyzes with respect to the impact on the decison-making process of those in this world who have the freedom to decide what sort of diet they are going to consume. In fact the book starts out speaking to the origin of diets as coming from semi-religious and religious communities where such diets helped reinforce (and enforce) adherence to the religious tenets in place at the time. Religion as the origin of diets (and “diets as religion”) really helps one understand today’s current dogmatic, polarized situation. As Fitzgerald points out, “rationality” does not have a large place at this point and looking rather to outcome-based results is a defensible way to approach your own diet.

Fitzgerald does a reasonable job at describing the various popular diets (food religions) today and uses stories and “characters” (e.g. Brian MacKenzie of CrossFit) to help entertain the reader in the process- some with greater success than others. This “Gladwell-esque” style can be very engaging on such semi-non-fiction subjects but Fitzgerald needs to more fully develop the many sides of the “stories” rather than just concentrate on the “character”. He misses out on the powerful combination of presenting both the “focus character” and the “character(s)” behind the studies and science that may or may not support the particular diet (much as Gladwell does in some of his books and essays). There is a near total miss on the later and substantially detracts from what would, with such additions, be a landmark book. It would be a longer book, but a much better book.

His calling-out of Tim Noakes on the subject is well done and demonstrates that “religion” can infect even the best of scientists. This serves as a fair warning to all about the powerful polarization and irrationality that has always infused the subject.

Whilst I personally subscribe to Fitzgerald’s “Healthy Agnostic Eating” concept, he could make a much stronger case with the inclusion of some level of a comprehensive review of what the (currently defective) field of “nutrition science” is finding- in particular that there is very little that can be concluded from a rigorous scientific perspective based on what we know today.

The book is a quick read and quite enjoyable in stretches but lacks quite a bit of depth and has no index. It is more like a very long essay than it is like a book and would serve as a starting point for anyone who would like to make a study of diets, their origins, and their efficacy. Fitzgerald does however have an important message about diet- there is no one way. The extent to which he conveys this to the typical reader will determine the success of this book.

I recommend the book but be aware that it is an “hors d’oeuvre” on the subject. Hopefully the main course will come soon.


2 thoughts on “Review of “Diet Cults” by Matt Fitzgerald

  1. I like Matt a lot, but his conclusion that “it’s not all black, it’s not all white, it’s all gray” is trivial at best. If people follow any kind of guidelines loosely, they can gain weight and become very unfit. Whether you subscribe to MyPlate, or some other guidelines.
    After all, decades of government guidelines promoting the foods listed on the original food pyramid have not averted the obesity trend.
    Having grown up in the South of France, I have never shied away from fat in all its forms. I never perceived it as being unhealthy and I always found it satiating. Being satiated is probably as important as being nourished, as far as weight control is concerned.
    This being said, I have nothing against carbohydrates, but I draw a clear line between a Twinkie and a sweet potato. To pretend that all carbs are equally safe would be disingenuous at best.
    Finally, if “there is more than one way”, would would anyone feel so compelled to denounce the many ways people eat today? It seems contradictory.

    • Hi Laurent,

      We are clearly on the same page on this subject, particularly the “trivial” nature of the advice. But I think that this is because we have not been indoctrinated (brainwashed) by some cult leader preying on fundamental human emotion and proclivities. I live in a town (Sun Valley, ID), where what seems like in excess of 60% of the populace claims to be “gluten-intolerant”. This on a fabric of raw vegan cultists who conduct “group cleanses” for the unwitting, uninformed, and truly gullible looking for some sort of magic. When you question these people about their diet choices and after you get through the surface of false claims and ask for the evidence, there is a pall of silence and a nervous exit. These are the people that could derive benefit from a book like this, and likely would if Fitzgerald had done a more thorough and engaging job. Perhaps someone else will write that book.

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