Every day I spend on social media, I am reminded of a growing epidemic that worries me — dietary tribalism. I’ve made up this term to refer to the many fractionated groups with conflicting dietary views who, for the most part, don’t realize just how much they have in common.


This recent piece in the the New York Times, about the “challenge” of “going vegan,” perfectly encapsulates the problematic way in which we tend to discuss food and nutrition. First, the article frames the eschewing of all animal products as a “challenge.” Loaded lens, anyone? Transitioning from omnivorism to veganism is certainly an adjustment, but if done over the course of several months or even a year, it is certainly easier than attempting it cold turkey or via a “30 day challenge.” And, after a while of eating in that manner, it becomes “the norm.” Riding a bicycle was surely a challenge to most people the first few times, but it eventually becomes an action that feels like second nature.

The article also repeats a familiar, yet inaccurate, idea: that one either is “a vegan” or eats an entire cow in one sitting. This is particularly troubling because it inevitably forces people to “take sides” (i.e.: “vegan is the only way to health” and “veganism is unhealthy”). All this mud-slinging detracts from a more important conversation: Americans need to eat more plant-based foods, less processed food, and be more mindful of where their food comes from, how it is grown, how those who grow it are treated, and how dietary choices affect the environment.

These days, dietary tribalism is rampant. You have, just to name a few, the Paleo folks, the vegans, the raw vegans, the low-carbers, and the fruitarians. While there is certainly something productive and empowering about engaging and connecting with like-minded individuals, these groups often turn into echo chambers where everyone tends to agree with everyone else and, occasionally, point out how “the other group” has it all wrong. Meanwhile, Big Food continues churning out highly processed junk, children as young as four years of age are developing Type 2 diabetes, genetically modified crops are seemingly everywhere, and food injustice issues are only worsening.

In all our “no, but I have THIS mountain of research to back me up” statements, we easily overlook one critical unifying point — we all are seeking out the same goal: health.

Regardless of our views on tofu, raw milk, and coconut oil, most of us who are passionate about nutrition and wellness are not happy with the Standard American Diet (SAD) or the fact that highly processed and minimally nutritious “foods” are the norm. The fact that millions of Americans have minimal access to fresh and healthful foods angers us.  We don’t want “kid food” pumped with artificial dyes. We can’t believe it takes more than 30 ingredients to make a Dunkin’ Donuts blueberry cake donut. We are appalled at what the average elementary school student is fed in the cafeteria. We are terrified of Monsanto’s ever-tightening vice grip on global agriculture.

Of course we are going to have different opinions. I certainly don’t agree with the school of thought that considers fiber meaningless, that thinks fruit should only be eaten on its own prior to noon, that argues humans must eat meat, or that thinks whole grains and beans should be avoided because they are “a poison.” As a nutrition professional, I have a need to set the record straight when I see basic nutrition information grossly distorted, or if a food company attempts to pass off highly processed junk as a “better for you” product simply because sugar is replaced with aspartame.

However, the back-and-forth mud-slinging between members of different “dietary tribes” troubles me most. I often imagine all the power that could be harnessed if we stopped and joined forces on some key issues: getting food dyes and trans fat out of our food supply, demanding that the presence of genetically modified organisms and artificial hormones be at the very least labeled on food items, reducing the presence of nutritionally empty foods in schools, facilitating access to healthy foods in “food deserts,” constructing a healthier food system (from farmworker to field to table).

The past few weeks have seen the “pink slime” debacle, the “arsenic in chicken feed” horror, and various food recalls (sushi tuna “scrape” being the latest). Meanwhile, a new study suggests that unhealthy diets may interfere with the body’s ability to eliminate toxic chemicals, which the researchers postulate might be a factor in the increased rates of autism. These are the issues that should awaken us from our dietary bubbles and get us thinking about the bigger picture.

Coalition politics are often times the key to paradigm shifts. It is possible to disagree with someone on nutrition issues and still have some common goals. Who, after all, can claim to be against a better food system? Now, more than ever, the grass-fed beef advocates and the fans of tempeh need to understand they actually can sit at the same table.


Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, is a Seattle-based dietitian who approaches nutrition from a whole-foods, plant-centric framework.

  • pawpaw

    Thanks for this call. Agreed on the need for coalition unity, especially during formation and passage of the new farm bill.
    Food safety is more than minimizing food-borne contaminants, toxins, allergens and infections. Have asked that more reports on long term food safety be considered herein, that is more on those food choices and habits that increase the risk of chronic health problems. Have been told that an updated format on this site could include more info.
    But how to report on these areas in ways that encourage respect, then coalition building among the disparate tribes?

  • Ted

    Oh, the “unity” is there, alright. And then some. One unifying characteristic is orthorexia (go ahead and google it). Then there is the palpable undercurrent of opinionated food policing, a determination to force one’s cracked-pot foodie wingnut obsessions upon everyone. By smear and deception, initially. By force of law, ultimately. Go be a vegan or a caveman or whatever but keep it to yourself, don’t tell us about it. We really don’t care about your queer eating rituals. Really.

  • Fred

    Yeah, Ted — we want to be able to happily munch away on our manure-fed pink-slime, antibiotic, GMO burgers without any disconcerting thoughts getting in the way of our next trip to the doctors…

  • Ruby

    The foodie approach is unified, isn’t it? At least it seems so. Everything “dietary” these days is the same scripted guilt trip. Not much about positive attributes of the eccentric sacred tribal custom at hand. Only generalized criticism and condemnation of the prevailing common sense standard. This leads me to believe the tribal stuff is mostly bunk because there is nothing to commend it. Heck, just look at “Fred’s” comment above — nothing but lazy slander and innuendo. Nothing at all about the superior features of whatever bogus crap he/she is peddling. Just hateful redundant nonsense yammer salted with key talking point words like GMO, pink slime…all the same silly cliche gossip. Unified, all right, into one big round reeking crock.

  • A truly terrible article. A call for unity where unity means recognizing all the biases of the writer and the attendant fear and innuendo accompanied by self righteous nagging.
    A true call for unity would say: we eat for pleasure and for sustenance. Find your own way.

  • BB

    You said that we all have the same goal of health, but that’s no the case (see “Ted”). The corporations aren’t really the problem. The problem is that we, the consumers, are not demanding healthy food often enough. The junk food corporations are putting out products that sell to make a profit. They don’t care if it’s good or bad for us. We have the choice to buy hydrogenated oil, enriched flour/sugar/corn syrup/artificial everything products or not. If more people demanded healthy food, then that’s what they would produce. Then you have the government heavily subsidizing GMO corn and soybean junk food products that are cheap but not good for us.

  • Edgar in Cambridge

    Maybe you all could get unified if you had even one fundamental truth embedded in the foodie nonsense you are scamming. Pretty difficult to get consensus when countless tribes are making up imaginative nonsense fairy tales as they go along, the stories getting wilder and wilder as they go. How does one go about unifying an asylum of crazed fiction writers?

  • Peter

    Sadly, I think the point that Andy is trying to bring out (and which maybe other commenters missed) is that people seem to be better at talking than listening. In addition, with blogs, internet and the like, it’s way easier for people to just shout and seek attention instead of listening, absorbing, and putting it all together (like Andy tried to do). I’m sure that all of these tribes have something good to say and that each diet has something to offer, but extremism in any form is never good, whether in politics, diet, whatever.

  • Georgianna

    Seriously? Seriously, Andy, you expect us all to agree with you that eating perfectly safe ordinary food causes unnamed toxins to build up resulting in autism? What a quack! That much we all can agree upon.