On Dieting As Religion

Tanja Hoch completed her Master of Arts in Religious Studies and Media Studies. Besides her interest in detecting religious behavior in contemporary cultural practices that appear rather secular, she is happiest when moving her body in a playful, yet focused way through bouldering, calisthenics and yoga. Tanja lives in Basel, Switzerland, publishes on Academia, and can be contacted via email for further questions.

Tanja, your recent work explores the religious aspects of dieting, and particularly the role that Western social media influencers play in how we eat. What would you say have been your most important findings so far? 

Annina, thank you so much for having me!

First off, it’s important to say that my thesis was one of the first in religious studies delving into this specific field, and that my findings are really just scraping the surface.

Very briefly put, though, I would say that following dietary advice released or reproduced by social media influencers can make people feel like they are on the road to salvation - even if they wouldn’t describe themselves as being particularly religious or spiritual. Eating like other people in our peer group also gives us a sense of community and belonging. At the same time, following a very different set of dietary rules or “food logic” compared to our “offline” peers can be a source of alienation.

In essence, “food logics” and dietary rules advertised by social media influencers provide us with a set of instructions for part of our life and therefore provide a sense of security.

This is very similar to the popular religions we have known: They instruct believers on how to live their lives in every aspect, not just in relation to food consumption.

Even in a society where an increasing number of people don’t follow rules set by religious institutions anymore, or follow them only partly, we might feel that we can reap spiritual benefits that a set of instructions and morale relating to food can offer by following the advice of certain social media influencers.

Wow! I am particularly interested in two expressions you used: “salvation” and “food logic”. What do you mean when you say “salvation”, and what exactly are “food logics”? 

Salvation is to be understood very broadly here: It could be in relation to something that transcends existence on this earth or in this life, such as salvation for the soul. But it could also be seen as salvation for the body and mind in the very “secular” sense of physical and mental health during one’s life, or as working towards salvation for non-human animals, the ecosystem, and so forth.

Someone’s “food logic” is their belief system regarding which foods are allowed, which are forbidden and how you should prepare and consume them to find salvation. These systems are very diverse and the rationale behind them is often quite arbitrary, drawing from theological dogma to scientific studies - which themselves very often have other studies opposing them, stating the exact opposite.

In relation to current food trends, salvation is usually connected to physical and mental health or the protection of nonhuman animals and planet earth.

What do you think is it about these mostly arbitrary food rules advertised online that appeals to people?

Well, in order to live, all of us have to figure out what food to consume and how. Especially since the industrialization of food production resulted in drawbacks like health concerns and environmental problems, people are looking for guidance as to what to eat. Some people do so mostly unconsciously, while others are extremely conscious of these things. Most of us stand between these two extremes.

Having someone tell us how to live and eat provides us with the understanding that we are doing what is considered “good” or “correct” - if only by social media influencers.

This is such an important point, because one big message of the Health At Every Size and Intuitive Eating philosophies that I myself subscribe to personally and professionally is the idea that there are no “good” or “bad” foods, but that all foods can and must fit into a balanced diet. Do you have any further insight into the morality or moral values we ascribe to foods? 

I didn’t assess which “food logics” are better or worse for an individual in my work, so from the perspective of a researcher, this philosophy, too, is just one among many.

That said, what I did find is that the separation between “good” and “bad” foods is, in most cases, synonymous to “clean” and “unclean” foods. Consuming something deemed “unclean” can make us feel like a failure and as if we are self-sabotaging: for example sabotaging our progress in building muscle, or sabotaging our self-image of someone who does the morally right thing by refraining from drinking milk.

Those of us trying to free ourselves from eating disorders in particular have to learn how to comfortably be around food and consume it. Your philosophy of not judging foods as “good” or “bad” could most certainly be helpful to people in this situation.

I see. Science aside, what’s your personal view on these matters? 

As long as neither physical nor psychological suffering results from following a certain “food logic”, I think we are doing fine. I think the more diverse the spectrum of foods one eats, the less one is prone to suffering.

However, there are certainly differences between “food logics” that lead to suffering very easily and those that usually won’t (except, obviously, to the suffering of nonhuman animals).

Personally, I’ve dabbled in veganism and vegetarianism, but I’ve always tried to balance my desire to help animals with caring for my own mental health and physical well-being. These days, I do my best to keep the consumption of animal products low, but I don’t believe I am “bad” whenever I do choose to eat cheese, for example.

Ultimately, it is very important to question moral statements surrounding food and doubt “food logics” you encounter. Definitely don’t just follow a set of food rules because influencer X has 80k followers.

One finding of my thesis was that influencers are mainly this successful, because they symbolize conscious or subconscious desires of their followers. One important question we can ask ourselves, therefore, is why one “food logic” is more appealing or more sensible to us than another.

How did you get into researching the connection between dieting and religious behaviour?

I was initially interested in looking at the religious aspects of dietary phenomena, because I noticed how people who follow dietary concepts or rules very strictly, for example vegans or those with an extreme interest in “healthy” eating, were often described as being “religious” or “extremist”. I really wanted to get to the roots of why people see how someone eats as their religion.

And why do you think that is? 

Complex religious systems such as Christianity or Islam (used to) regulate and guide almost every single aspect of human life; they have specific dietary rules and restrictions: Which foods are good for consumption and clean? Which foods are dirty and thereby deemed unfit for consumption? When should one fast, for how long?

Those believers who follow these rules very strictly are typically viewed as very religious or firm believers. Further, food is and has been used to symbolize body parts of deities, it has been and it is still being sacrificed.

Most certainly, food has always meant more than mere sustentation:

It is a means to regulate time by marking certain points in a day, a month, a week or a year. It plays a big role in constituting who belongs to a social group and who doesn’t. And, in most cases, its correct preparation, consumption or sacrifice is meant to lead a single person or community to salvation.

For all of these reasons, I think it is no wonder that people use food and diets as tools or instruments to tackle the big questions of life.