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Food Cults: Eating Fads and Movements

What do we mean when we call any group a cult? Defining that term is a slippery proposition – the word cult is provocative and arguably pejorative. Does it necessarily refer to a religious group? A group with a charismatic leader? Or something darker and more sinister? Because beliefs and practices surrounding food often inspire religious and political fervor, as well as function to unite people into insular groups, it is inevitable that “food cults” would emerge.

We take a look at the term “Food Cult”, we explore the questions of domestic and international, contemporary and historic food communities characterized by extreme nutritional beliefs, often viewed as “fringe” movements by mainstream culture. Celebrities for example, who are at the forefront of mainstream media serve as prime examples of fad-diet leaders. For example, when Beyonce announced her (short-lived) decision to practice veganism on Good Morning America, her large following of millions across the world decided to toss the pork and poultry, in exchange for plant-based products. Studying the extreme beliefs and practices of such food cults allows us to see the ways in which food serves as a nexus for religious beliefs, sexuality, death anxiety, preoccupation with the body, asceticism, and hedonism, to name a few.  Moreover, in contrast to religious and political cults, food cults have the added dimension of mediating cultural trends in nutrition and diet through their membership.

Studying the extreme beliefs and practices of such food cults allows us to see the ways in which food serves as a nexus for religious beliefs, sexuality, death anxiety, preoccupation with the body, asceticism, and hedonism, to name a few. In contrast to religious and political cults, food cults have the added dimension of mediating cultural trends in nutrition and diet through their membership. Should we then consider raw foodists, many of whom believe that cooked food is poison, a type of food cult? What about paleo diet adherents or those who follow a restricted calorie diet for longevity? Food Cults explores these questions by looking at domestic and international, contemporary and historic food communities characterized by extreme nutritional beliefs or viewed as “fringe” movements by mainstream culture. While there are a variety of accounts of such food communities across disciplines, this collection pulls together these works and explains why we gravitate toward such groups and the social and psychological functions they serve.

The term ‘cult’ can be suggested as a dynamic one (especially when conversing about diet-variety), and not necessarily a derogatory one. Moreover, some consumers might argue that some of the dominant culture’s beliefs and practices surrounding food should be consigned to cult-hood, such as the cult of sugar, the cult of meat, or the cult of junk food.  While certainly many consumers will address cultural trends and fads, food cults differ from food fads in that membership in a food cult becomes a central organizer of one’s identity and revolves around a group dogma or ideology.  Cults of any kind function much like religion, often providing a conversion experience, a charismatic leader, collective identity, and a community of “worship” (either in person or increasingly online).  Like religion, cults provide a way to find meaning in confusing situations, like eating.

There are many food practices such as the following:  

Raw food diets

Psychoactive foods

Biblical diets (and/or other historical replication diets):

Disgust (culturally inappropriate food practices)

Supplements

Exotic game/endangered species

Poisonous/toxic food ingestion

Pet foods and pet diets

Muscle building/masculinity

Asceticism

Tapeworm/parasite diets

Words by Nick Linson

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