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Paleo, low carb, gluten-free? Welcome to the 'Diet Cult' says controversial book

Beware of diet cults says author.

If you follow the virtual world of weight loss on Twitter and Facebook, you may have noticed something recently: It's gotten nasty. High fat low carb ketogenic advocates sometimes attack fat-free vegans, while plant-based dieters sometimes toss tofu taunts at their Paleo brethren. Why so mean? Matt Fitzgerald says he has the answer, and he describes it in his new book, "Diet Cults". We interviewed him to get additional insights. You can read our complete review of the book by clicking here.

So what's up with the down attitude and attacks on different types of diets? Here's what Matt says:

Food is more than mere sustenance for humans. It is also a source of individual, cultural, and even moral identity. Research by Yale psychologist Karen Wynn has shown that infants as young as 11 months express disapproval of puppets who appear not to share their own food preferences. This hardwired tendency to make food-based moral judgments is probably a legacy of ancient times, when individual cultures distinguished themselves from one another through dietary norms. Today there is far more individual freedom of choice in food selection, as well as a clear divide between pleasure-based ways of eating and health-based ways of eating. It is the collision between these old and new factors that has given rise to the wars among the various health-based diet factions.

Recently, the book "The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet" has created its own band of followers as well as naysayers. Advocates are talking about eating butter for snacks, while nay-sayers are warning about dire consequences. The influence of the book resulted in an attention-getting cover from Time magazine that reversed its previous views on saturated fat. (Read a review of the book by clicking here.)

I asked Matt about his view on the new "eat all the steak you want but ban bread" cult:

"At the very least, the claim that high-fat diets are healthier than other diets is clearly false. But the same can be said of any rule-bound way of eating that claims superiority. If nutrition science has proven anything, it's that humans can thrive on a wide range of diets. This is not to suggest that anything goes, however, and I do have some concerns about the substance of the high-fat diets that are currently being championed. For example, eating a lot of red meat is known to increase the risk for various kinds of cancer," he said.

Then there's the popularity of the gluten-free diet. Experts such as "Wheat Belly" creator Dr. William Davis and "Grain Brain" author Dr. David Perlmutter advise everyone to avoid gluten and grains. But Matt disagrees.

"Gluten is completely harmless for most people. One recent study found that 92 percent of people who believed they were gluten intolerant experienced significant improvement in symptoms when gluten remained in their diet and another type of nutrient--a hard-to-digest type of carbohydrate known as FODMAPs--was removed instead," he declared.

So what's the perfect diet? There isn't one, says Matt.

"I do not believe there is an ideal diet for human health. The best we can do is to identify a general framework of dietary guidelines to respect. These guidelines include recommendations to eat lots of vegetables and to minimize consumption of refined sugars. My personal take on this framework is something I call "agnostic healthy eating," which I think of as the least restrictive way to eat for maximum health. I think this approach is more sustainable for most people than are the "diet cults" (as I call them), because it allows the individual to eat in culturally familiar ways and to exercise his or her individual preferences."

What's his own diet like?

"I eat cold cereal for breakfast almost every morning. I grew up eating cereal and I like it. As an agnostic healthy eater, I've simply raised my standards for this meal, choosing only 100% whole-grain cereals that are low in sugar and eating them with organic whole milk and a generous handful of fresh berries. I also drink a glass of OJ and a mug of black coffee every morning. For lunch I usually eat dinner leftovers--broiled fish with quinoa and sweet peas is a recent example. I wash that down with a glass of vegetable juice and eat more fruit plus a square of dark chocolate for dessert. (I exercise twice a day, so I eat a lot!) Most days I have a beer and a handful of nuts before dinner. My wife is the cook in our family, so I eat whatever she makes. She does a lot of fish and vegetables soups. When we eat meat it's more likely to be chicken or bison than ground chuck. Dessert is more fruit (much of which comes off our own backyard trees) and another square of dark chocolate."

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