The Limbic System Wins—Or Does It?

July 6, 2015

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 Houchins

Jeannie Houchins, RD
Vice President of Public Relations and Social Influence
Mullen Lowe

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