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The Limbic System Wins—Or Does It?

The Gluten LieFood myths and beliefs are deeply rooted in people since they are connected to the emotional or limbic system of the brain. And research shows that rational arguments are often not taken into consideration when someone is embarking on a health change like dieting or purchasing products.

In the June Food Technology Food, Medicine & Health column, I discussed the importance of communicating science and how fragile the communication system is today. As one of my examples, I drew attention to Alan Levinovitz, author of The Gluten Lie. At first blush one might wonder why a philosophy and religion professor from James Madison University is writing about food and related behavior. However, upon further exploration, the connection between the two concepts—food behaviors (myths and beliefs) and religion—becomes apparent.

Levinovitz explores the historical context of health/nutrition misinformation and the anxiety that plagues the public surrounding what to eat and what not to eat. He addresses the wide range of dieting and food beliefs that stems from religious sects to the more current convictions of demonizing sugars, fats, salt, and—of course—anything with gluten.

All of these beliefs are based on the myth of paradise—that dietary practices of the past are better and more pure than anything that is offered today. According to Levinovitz, what the general public fails to take into account is that these myths stem from superstition and lack of reporting out on the full science. Frighteningly, once a person embraces the myth, it is believed as fact, and the myth becomes deeply rooted as a part of that person’s identity.

Levinovitz poses that all popular “fad” diets follow the same recipe and include:

  • Myth narratives of “unnatural and natural” paradise
  • Use of fear, pseudo-scientific jargon, alarmist language, scapegoating, and showing the world as good versus evil with anything associated with industry as evil
  • A focus on insecurity and vulnerability of readers
  • Anti-establishment messaging that appeals to readers who are frustrated with mainstream medicine
  • Author-biased interpretation of data to feed into diet premise
  • Use of correlation, which—in the scientific world—is not causation

In looking at these “ingredients” that make up popular diets, they all hit on the most primal concept—emotion. Why? Because emotions are visceral and drive behavior; however, our rational minds look to “evidence” to support the myths or beliefs.

Is Levinovitz right in comparing the current food beliefs landscape to religion? In short—yes. He offers another way for those who work in the food industry or anyone that’s interested in understanding the concept of food as religion to better understand the allure of the current diet landscape.

Jeannie HouchinsJeannie Houchins, RD
Vice President of Public Relations and Social Influence
Mullen Lowe
jeanniehouchins@gmail.com

3 Responses

  1. So how do we combat this? If you can’t reach a person through logic, and if you don’t want to resort to fear-tactics, how do we effectively convey our messages? How do we effectively communicate the value of food science and the facts behind controversial hot-topics?
    I suppose it helps to identify the “recipe of a fad diet” because the first step is realizing there’s a (communication) problem. But what comes next?
    One valuable stat in this conversation comes from the IFIC Food and Health Survey, which found, “more than three-quarters (78%) of respondents say they would rather hear information about what to eat versus what not to eat.” [http://feedstuffsfoodlink.com/story-consumer-food-confusion-growing-0-127675]
    I would love to hear some experiences from those who have found effective ways to share information in opposition to an ever-growing misconception or fad-diet.

  2. Reblogged this on Green-Eyed Guide and commented:
    If you can’t reach a person through logic, and if you don’t want to resort to fear-tactics, how do we effectively convey our messages? How do we effectively communicate the value of food science and the facts behind controversial hot-topics?
    I suppose it helps to identify the “recipe of a fad diet” because the first step is realizing there’s a (communication) problem. But what comes next?
    One valuable stat in this conversation comes from the IFIC Food and Health Survey, which found, “more than three-quarters (78%) of respondents say they would rather hear information about what to eat versus what not to eat.” [http://feedstuffsfoodlink.com/story-consumer-food-confusion-growing-0-127675]
    I would love to hear some experiences from those who have found effective ways to share information in opposition to an ever-growing misconception or fad-diet.

  3. What about the myth of FDA integrity? How many times has a product been fast-tracked to market, only to be recalled a few years later after costly litigation? How about the myth of objective science? Once you bother to pull back the curtain, you see the inordinate effect of politics and finance on so-called “objective research.”

    So what is your religion? Monsanto-based science, or perhaps the wonders of Dow Chemical research?

    The real reason the public so desperately clings to the hope offered by alternative health practitioners is that science, medicine, and agribusiness in this country are morally bankrupt!

    I also find it so tiring to hear the acolytes of ConAgra or the Archer Daniels Midland disciples wring their hands in anguish at the heathens who don’t worship their gods. Just because I want real food does not make me ignorant. The fact is, people who deny the differences between the whole foods that once existed and the “miracle” garbage offered by the big four are the people who believe in myths!

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