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.