People believe in all kinds of things. Some believe they're being poisoned by chemtrails, some that 2pac is alive, and some swear by LCHF being the panacea. What do these things have in common?
All of them are... weird.
Weird things that people believe in can be divided into three categories:
claims that most experts don't accept
claims that are illogical or unprobable
claims that have anecdotal or unconfirmed evidence (1)
About imperfection of the human mind
Believing weird things is no wonder if we know that we're programmed to do so.
The human brain has evolved so that it notices patterns in everything, even when there aren't any. It's safer to see an imagined tiger in the shadows than to not notice it and become its breakfast.
Disclaimer: it's not safe to claim that tigers already had breakfast.
In any case, tigers don't lurk round the corner of your building these days so this pattern noticing is not usually very useful. Furthermore, it often leads us to false conclusions that can be harmful. (2)
Also, our fragile brain does not deal very well with insecurity. Filled with insecurities, life can be very scary. Our mind has a defect which makes it think that it's better to know falsely than not know at all. This is why many people practice pseudo science, superstition, and other lies.
Small children don't differentiate between thought and action. They think that willing something can make it happen. But children should grow up at some point.
The problem occurs when adults continue with these misconceptions. The development of a child's brain into an adult one does not involve just collecting data about the world around us. The main component of this development is getting rid of children's beliefs. (3)
In the complex world of nutrition filled with contradictory information, people seek safety and organization. More specifically, they avoid insecurity by seeking dietary myths, conspiracy theories and superstitions.
Dietary folk lore
Browsing any web portal will almost certainly lead you to believe that cancer can be avoided by what you eat. That superfoods will extend your life, and that the paleolithic diet is logically the best choice.
Dietary myths (ideas about diet that have very few scientific evidence or are contradictory to them) can stop you from achieving the healthy diet. Almost without exception, dietary myths represent a reductionist view of diet, accentuating the benefits or risks of a certain component, neglecting the total quality of the diet, which is what actually makes the difference between health and illness.
Industry of dietary myths
Dietary industry is not your greatest enemy.
A different industry might be.
Industry of dietary myths is one of the main enemies of healthy diet and an opponent of your mental health.
Its origins are much older than dietary industry.
Diet and mythology have intertwined from a long time ago. Centuries BC the Chinese daoists recommended avoiding gluten, promising you the ability of teleportation and flight if you do so. (4)
Industry of dietary myths makes great use of human greed. Sometimes it lies to propagate its interests, other times it believes the stupidity it claims. I'm not sure which is the predominant factor.
The list of dietary myths is endless.
Why do we believe in bulls**t?
Which basic human needs do „alternative“ diet, dietary myths and conspiracy theories satisfy?
Humans have an ingrained wish for understanding, safety and control. (5)
This is why we look for cause and effect.
Also, we try to hold on to our beliefs and avoid them getting changed in the process. We all hurt if we're proven wrong.
On the other side, it feels great to leave the mainstream story and be a part of the alternative one. (6)
Diet is, along with physical activity, a segment of life we can have most influence on regarding health conservation and improvement, so we rely on it the most.
There are many reasons for dietary myths being widespread:
Lack of dietary know-it-all
A huge amount of scientific research. Way too much low-quality ones.
A huge amount of their interpretations. Too few careful ones, and too many absolute, wrong, and questionable ones.
A huge amount of non-scientific and unverified dietary information.
Individual economic and social interests.
The quest for magical pill and panacea.
Non-specificity and multitude of meanings of nutrition science is a perfect fertile ground for development of dietary myths. And they are the reason we suffocate in wrong dietary information.
Why do we refuse to believe in bulls**t?
It's all around us. I won't be exaggerating much if I say that the general public notion of diet is based on dietary myths, and not verified facts.
Who cares if we believe the lies if they do us no harm?
Except they do.
In the best case scenario, practice based on the myth won't have a direct negative effect on your physical health. If you eat more or less carbs, it doesn’t matter. Also, it won’t cause any undesired stress, nor effect negatively on your mental health.
In the worst case scenario, practice based on the myth will have a direct negative effect on your health, be it physical or mental. Eat only raw food and you won't ingest all the necessary nutrients, you'll have a higher risk of food poisoning, and this diet will leave you miserable. Seriously, who looks forward to going back to the times before fire and hunting tools were invented?
Between the best and worst case scenario, there are many sub-optimal cases where most mythological practices are.
Even if there are no significant consequences, how useful is it to divert attention from what really matters?
It isn't. It's harmful.
Human attention is very limited and we need to be very careful as to where we focus it onto.
The biggest dietary myth
Before I make a conclusion, I'd like to share with you the biggest dietary myth of them all.
In the completely logical impossibility of making way in this controversial world of mostly worthless dietary information, many believe that there are no two nutritionists who agree on what it means to eat healthy.
Of course, way too many people engage in nutrition without being qualified to do so.
Of course, there are bad nutritionists as well.
But the nutritionists who know what they're doing (base their recommendations on quality scientific literature) are mostly in agreement. Maybe not in every little detail, but in the larger picture – yes. And the larger picture is what really matters and makes the difference.
Remember: we still don't know everything. But we know more by the day. We know enough to recommend a healthy diet and not claim there is one universal perfect diet.
Most dietary information that can be found online or in the media is distorted or incorrect. This almost completely disables a non-professional from finding their way around and creating a really healthy diet for themselves.
Untrained brain is an easy-to-fool brain. It will believe anything. It can be manipulated and used by fraudsters – authors of different diets and fads as well as supplement producers.
Collecting information is not enough to immunize the brain from dietary myths. Smart people believe in them as well. They are trained to defend their beliefs at all cost, regardless of their (un)foundedness.
So I promptly react to promoting pseudo science and I propagate the scientific and verified information. I promote the comeback of belief in experts.
But before all this, I try to promote critical thinking. People don't need to be told what to think but how to think.
Censor unverified sources. Censor information without a qualified signature. Train your scepticism and critical thinking. Doubt your beliefs.
All dietary information should be taken with a grain of salt. With a spoon, just in case, unless you have high blood pressure.
1. Shermer, M. (2002). Why people believe weird things: Pseudoscience, superstition, and other confusions of our time. Macmillan.
2. Taleb, N. (2005). Fooled by randomness: The hidden role of chance in life and in the markets (Vol. 1). Random House Incorporated.
3. Hood, B. M. (2009). Supersense: Why we believe in the unbelievable. HarperOne.
4. Levinovitz, A. (2015). The gluten lie: and other myths about what you eat. Simon and Schuster.
5. Tetlock, P. E. (2002). Social functionalist frameworks for judgment and choice: intuitive politicians, theologians, and prosecutors. Psychological review, 109(3), 451.
6. Goertzel, T. (1994). Belief in conspiracy theories. Political Psychology, 731-742.