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The Similarities Between Food Fundamentalists and IFB Zealots

bruce midwestern baptist college pontiac michigan 1978
Bruce Gerencser, Midwestern Baptist College, Spring 1978. I already had high blood pressure. 1969 Pontiac Tempest, by the way. 326 CID, three-speed on the floor. Sweet ride.

Every month or so, I receive a polite, wordy email — complete with links — from someone who is certain that if I just follow a certain fad diet, eat certain foods, or follow this or that dietary program, whatever ails me will be instantaneously, miraculously cured. These Food Fundamentalists® certainly mean well, but I don’t find their “advice” helpful at all.

The contact page states: “I know you stayed at a Holiday Inn last night, but you are not a medical professional, so please do not send me unsolicited medical or psychological advice. I am not interested — ever.” Food Fundamentalists® — who often eschew Western medicine — evidently believe that since they are “helping” me, my request doesn’t apply to them. These food zealots are not much different from Evangelical Bible thumpers who fill my email box with sermons, Bible verses, and personal attacks. Food Fundamentalists® think their gospel, if believed and practiced, will “save” me from my “sins.”  In their minds, my biggest “sin” is obesity or a bad diet. If I just worshipped and obeyed their deity, why I would drop 200 pounds and look as slim and trim as I did the day I entered Bible college.

Of course, when I investigate their Holy books and websites, I find that they are filled with errors and contradictions, much like the inerrant Word of God. Every food cult has its own divine text, each purporting to be the truth. What’s someone like me supposed to do? Read. Investigate. Look at the science and studies behind a particular food cult’s gospel. (Two of the first places I go are Quack Watch and Science-Based Medicine.) I find, without fail, that Food Fundamentalists® preach gospels that are not backed up by science and empirical data. I am not saying that these cults don’t help anyone – they do. But the same can be said for Christian Fundamentalism. Some people find real, lasting help through believing in the miracle-working power of a dead man named Jesus. The reasons for this are many, and so it is with the various diets Food Fundamentalists® present to me as the cure for my afflictions. Despite the success stories, most people who put their faith and trust in Jesus find out that the dead Son of God is not what cultists claim he is. So it is with diets. Most people who go on diets lose weight for a time, but, in the end, they gain the lost weight back and then some. Diets don’t work, regardless of their name. Bruce, it’s not a diet, it’s a way of life, food cultists say. Sound familiar? It’s a relationship, not a religion.

Christian Fundamentalists blame the person when Christianity doesn’t stick. They didn’t pray the right prayer, believe the right beliefs, or really, really, really have faith. Food Fundamentalists® do the same. If an obese person fails to succeed or later regains lost weight, it’s their fault for not religiously, devotedly following the plan.

The biggest issue, at least from my perspective, is that Christian Fundamentalists and Food Fundamentalists® both make assumptions about my life — past and present. Food cultists assume — wrongly — that the reason people are obese is because of the type or quantity of food they eat. In the minds of these Fundamentalists, all fat people need to do is eat less and eat cult-approved foods. These preachers of fidelity to the BMI chart, make assumptions about me, assuming I am overweight because I eat too many McDonald’s Big Macs or eat too much processed foods. These zealots don’t know what or how I eat, they just assume that I must eat too much food or eat the wrong food because I am spatially challenged.

I hate to break it to them, but my diet is NOT the problem. Sure, I can overeat at times, and I certainly am not going to pass up ice cream if it is offered, but on most days, I eat healthily — that is, if anyone can actually define what the fuck it means to eat “healthily.” Sorry, Food Fundamentalists®, but your super-duper diet plan is not the answer to my medical problems. If it were really that simple, I am certain one of the many doctors and specialists I have seen over the past thirty years would have mentioned it. Yeah, I know, they are all members of a secret cabal who deliberately keep me sick so they can make lots of money off of me. Child, please.

Miller Peak, 1975, with my Sunday School class. Miller Peak is almost 10,000 feet high. In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m the 18-year-old redhead in the back.

The only medical problem I have that is affected by what I eat is diabetes (and it’s under control with medication). That’s it. Everything else: Fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, degenerative spine disease, gastroparesis, and the excruciating, debilitating pain that comes from these medical afflictions are not helped, harmed, or cured by what I eat. The real problem now, thanks to gastroparesis, with its attendant nausea and vomiting, is that I often don’t eat enough. In fact, I have lost one hundred pounds. Did my health change after losing twenty-five percent of my body mass? Surely, losing a lot of weight magically cures obese people, right? That’s what Food Fundamentalists® say. The only measurable difference for me has been the reduction of my A1c to 5.8.

I have high blood pressure too, but I have concluded, based on a thorough study of my sixty-six-year medical history and family history, that hypertension runs in our family. My seventy-three-year-old aunt started taking medicine to control her blood pressure in her 20s, and she has never been a pound overweight a day in her life. I took a careful look at my blood pressure numbers from my high school years. At the time, I was 6 feet tall and weighed 150 pounds soaking wet. I played baseball and basketball, I rode a bicycle virtually everywhere I went — spring, summer, winter, and fall. Later in my teen years, I frequently went hiking, including hiking to the top of Miller Peak in the picture above. I was a slim, trim, fit fighting machine, yet I had high blood pressure.

As I look back over my medical history, I see a plethora of reasons that better explain where I am today than simplistically saying, Bruce, you are fat. Lose weight and all will be well. I wish things were that simple, but they are not. I am at a place in life where I do what I can, and some days, “doing what I can” means getting through the day without committing suicide. So, please walk in my shoes first before you decide to send me “advice” I didn’t ask for. Think I am being too pointed and direct? Again, walk in my skin for a few days, weeks, or months, and then we will talk. When you are doing all you can to make it to tomorrow, the last thing you need is a pompous, arrogant Food Fundamentalist® preaching to you his or her food cult’s gospel. Imagine, for a moment, you are walking home from a long twelve-hour day at work. Every part of your body is screaming for an hour-long dip in a hot bath, followed by several glasses of red wine. As you walk towards your home, an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) street preacher accosts you on the street, intent on evangelization and conversion. How would you respond to this man’s evangelistic efforts? What if he persisted to hound you every time he saw you? Why, I suspect you might feel homicidal rage welling up inside of you. You might even tell him you “tried” Jesus and it didn’t work for you, and with a flip of your middle finger say to him, now, fuck off. This is exactly how I feel when I receive yet another email from a Food Fundamentalist® wanting me to join their cult. If you really love and respect me as a person and appreciate my writing, then do me a favor: leave my medical treatment to me and my doctors — men and women who, unlike you, actually went to medical school to become experts in their chosen fields of practice.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    What a sweet car – complete with the cockeyed Michigan Bicentennial license plate. Spirit of 76 indeed.

    The late writer Jim Harrison had a great line about self-improvement: “we hammer on our souls as if they were tract houses.” He theorized that it’s a uniquely American thing, a combination of Protestant work ethic, more than a little bit of Puritanism, frontier era ambition, and plain old nuttiness. For a hilarious take on it, read Boyle’s “The Road to Wellville,” or watch the movie, which does the book justice. It’s about W.K. Kellogg, who invented Corn Flakes as a health food and opened a health camp in Battle Creek, Michigan at the turn of the century. Boyle’s theme is that Kellogg seized an opportunity to fleece upper middle class Americans of the Victorian era who couldn’t figure out why they were unhappy so they blamed food.

    I confess I’m a stone cold sucker for any fad or theory that promises to Completely Change My Entire Life. You’re right to brand prescriptive diets as evangelical. There’s the promise of transformation and the passion that goes with it. There’s also the nuisance aspect of lecturing people on their food choices. Guilty as charged – I’m so glad my friends and relatives had the sense to tell me I was full of shit. I think I’ve gotten smart enough to respect others’ food choices, or at least keep my opinions to myself. Although I’m not a big fan of QuackWatch (they have their own agenda), it only takes reading a few studies on PubMed to realize that human beings evolved to thrive on an incredible variety of foods. In fact, variety is the key.

    We all want to be healthy and feel good. Some of that is under our control, but not as much as we think. It’s a rude awakening to do everything right and still draw an unlucky card. Poverty, stress, and mental health problems kill people. If you want to save lives, work for publicly funded health and dental insurance.

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    Ken Hagen

    Bruce, very good piece. There has been and will always be people who search for the easy answers, logic be damned. There was an interview on CBS Mornings today with Christy Harrison, whose book ‘The Wellness Trap’ deals with misinformation about what makes us healthy. I haven’t read it yet but it appears to spell out what you did in today’s post. It’s a constant struggle, as you well know, fighting irrational and illogical ideas. Keep up the good work.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    Lizzo is a vegan and works out every day. And, from my adventures as a soccer player, bicycle racer and musical performer (and having taken acting training), I can tell you that dancing or musical performance is as physically demanding as athletics.

    No one has a right to judge another person’s physical size. People are born with a particular morphology and can only change within a certain range. When I started my gender affirmation process, in my 40s, I soon realized that even though I still had a trim figure as a man,I would never be less than a size 12 as a woman.

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    I hear ya. What used to drive me nuts on Twitter were the fanatics who absolutely refused to believe anything was incurable. I had to start taking meds for my high blood sugar and pain/antidepressants for fibromyalgia. To them, I was a pill popper, a slave to Big Pharma. Some wanted to cure me with diets and supplements. Others said mental illness was a made up concept to persecute those who were different. “You could get better if you wanted to!” Just like religious fanatics.
    Sometimes, I think people needs to believe the nonsense because the idea of incurable is too scary to contemplate. It gives them an illusion of control that nobody has in real life.

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    It seems such emails can be quickly dispatched. Are you certain it is people who visited the blog and have observed from posts that you are in poor health? Email has always had such crapola. I remember in the 90s, before spam filters, it was “Xanax” and “enlarge your penis”.
    That said it is very possible it is a Dudley do-right do gooder. I’ve seen them in action, in our case my significant other has only the full use of one eye and the other eye must be blocked. Even the casual act of shopping without asking or needing any help they make a bee line with unsolicited medical advice. Without a medical degree, any knowledge besides seeing someone with an eye patch they somehow are instant experts. It’s Dunning-Krueger with sometimes prayers and personal anecdotes. Mommas teach your kids that this is RUDE.

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    I started veering into Food Fundamentalism a little over a decade ago. It’s easy to get sucked into promises of being able to control one’s health and aging process. That is what people want – the ability to control our health and aging. But, when you dig deeper, research into health and wellness is notoriously fraught with confounds and problems.

    Fun story. As per my pseudonym, I am a competitive age group athlete in obstacle racing. I train 6 days a week doing a variety of running, weight training, grip strength training, core work, etc. I eat mostly whole foods. Now I am in the tough throes of perimenopause where my body is going through big changes. My sleep is really crappy, and in the past year I have put on some fat. Anyone would look at me and not notice much weight gain as I am still by most standards on the smaller side. But I got rid of my scale a few months ago because I can’t handle tracking that number right now. I went for my annual physical last month and told the nurse I am not psychologically able to handle weight right now. She said no problem, turn around backwards, I got you. Unfortunately, neither of us communicated to my doctor that weight was not going to be part of the conversation today, and my doctor told me exactly how much weight I had gained in a year and what my BMI meant even though she admitted BMI is a problematic concept. I went off on her! I said, “You know I am an athlete, right? I cannot possibly work out more than I do now without negatively affecting my health. And my diet consists primarily of whole foods. I am going through perimenopause, what do you expect?” She backed off, but seriously? As a medical professional, you’re going to try to fat shame someone who by your standards is doing everything “right” and by all measures is healthy? And she knows nothing of how much of my weight is muscle, fat, water, etc. Composition matters. I could have put her onto my back and done a squat, but I didn’t…..The medical community is in dire need of retraining on dealing with patients with regard to size and how it actually matters. Rant over.

    People need to freaking mind their own business.

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    I lost quite a bit of weight the last few years from mostly giving up sugar, but that was because I ATE IT A LOT. So if I do eat a little, I don’t usually obsess. Right now my diet is the best it’s been in decades, albeit still imperfect.

    I did a lot of extra biking (for me) last year and I did gain some weight…largely in my muscles. Which still kind of upset me as a woman, as it is still a bigger number. Kind of stupid. Still, I want to feel better more than I want to look better. If that happens, I don’t GAF what I weigh. I’m just sorry that people feel the need to criticize a stranger’s weight to their face, or rather, in food proselytizing emails.

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    My wife suffers from a chronic illness. We (really she, though I’ve been asked to be the messenger on occasion) also get well-intentioned, unsolicited, un-tested medical advice. Yes, it most always comes down “this diet I discovered cured Dr. So-And-So Fad Guru and it will cure you too”. The doctor part is questionable and the guru usually diagnosed themself with no published evidence that they ever had the condition afflicting my wife. They did, however, sell books to gullible people which makes them credible, somehow.

    Interestingly, we got some of this advice from people at church too. I don’t know if they figured this was the mysterious way God would work, or that maybe he needed a little help to nudge things along and they could be the Sarah to our Abraham (after all, that worked out so well in the story). I suspect the pastor would not have approved, but who knows – after all, MLMs seem to flourish in some churches….

    The real doctors we consult with, the ones with medical degrees from places I recognize, who publish peer-reviewed research, who work with actual hospitals with departments that treat my wife’s type of condition and who consult with nationally and internationally known disease advocacy groups (i.e.: not Dr. Dirk Gently) are very clear that there is no cure today, but there are medically recognized treatments proven to help alleviate symptoms. Still, enough people want to believe a few persecuted kooks, I mean crusaders, have discovered simple remedies that are suppressed by a global, medical conspiracy.

    BTW (and off topic) – I also have pictures of me, as a little kid, in some of those plaid pants back in the ’70’s. To this day, I consider it a form of child abuse.

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