Tribalism Within Diet And Nutrition

Guest post by Paul Fairbairn, BSc (hons) in Sport and Exercise Science & Nutrition MSc student

A good kitchen guide to pregnancy

Today’s post is a bit of a different one, from Paul Fairbairn who has written for me before. With today’s messages constantly spread across social media, nutrition can be more confusing as ever. Paul explains below why “tribaliam” is not doing our field any favours.

Tribalism within diet and nutrition

I would like to use this article to talk about tribalism within diet and nutrition, and no I’m not talking about a new branch of paleo where you have to eat food with your bare hands whilst running away from a sabretooth tiger.  What I am actually referring to is the nature in which people become part of a dietary club, a club which they will pedal to the uninitiated and vehemently defend against detractors.  This is quite well summed up by the theory of collective effervescence coined by French sociologist David Émile Durkheim which to briefly summarise is “a community or society may at times come together and simultaneously communicate the same thought and participate in the same action. Such an event then causes collective effervescence which excites individuals and serves to unify the group.”

Being part of a club or movement is quite common across a wide variety of areas whether this is being part of the political left or right, Mac versus PC, Manchester United and Manchester City or perhaps the most deep seated club rivalry is it scon or scoan?

Like with many aspects of science nutrition is far from being black and white, good or bad, it is various shades of grey with health care professionals applying the best available evidence to their practice whether that be working on an individual basis with clients or devising public health policy.  A common problem with this apparent tribal mentality in nutrition is it appears to often cloud the judgement of those within these “clubs” and nurture an almost all or nothing unbalanced approach to the field.  Commonly these clubs champion the research that supports and denounce that which doesn’t, often referred to as cherry picking or confirmation bias.

No better examples lies in the debates seen on various social media platforms, where the nominated gladiators from each tribe come forward to do battle.  Only unlike the Colosseum battles of old it is not a fight to the death, with the victor standing over their vanquished opponent, it is more like a drunken dust up after a few too many drinks.

The problem is often people who are members of these tribes will promote a specific diet as “the only diets that works” or being the “The only way to solve the *insert health crisis here*”.  This can be driven by something as innocent as an individual’s personal experience applying a specific diet.  How often do we see someone struggle with weight loss until they find the diet that works for them, and then they want to spread the message of said diet?  Alternatively someone may be pushing a diet as they stand to gain financial benefits from book sales or private consultations.  These people are effectively the scientologists of nutrition they gain huge amounts of money from convincing people to subscribe to their ideology, through use of badly written science fiction.

Take home message

A good scientist or health care practitioner will be willing to listen to evidence from an opposing view point and perhaps most importantly be open to being wrong and changing their views and practices assuming the body of scientific evidence dictates. They will also not take an all or nothing one size fits all approach to diet and nutrition, certain strategies will favour certain people based on their individual goals, preferences, other lifestyle factors and health status.  This all leads back to a point that is often made, and that’s to take your advice from a qualified professional, someone who has devoted the time and the effort to develop the skills and knowledge to give advice on nutrition.  At the end of the day within nutrition our goal is improve the health and performance of whom we work with, we aren’t here to sell club subscriptions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *