Diet Tribes

by | Jan 16, 2023 | Nutrition

Image: Shutterstock

Just as in baseball, diets have their own teams and fans who passionately support and defend them. That has a few benefits and some serious drawbacks.

This is a time of year when the media is alive with diet information and advice. Inspired to lose added holiday pounds we avidly look for a special advantage of one type of diet over another. We pick one, follow it with great devotion, have success and work to recruit our friends and family to the latest one that really works – it’s easy, relatively painless and fast.

You know how it goes. Cathy’s now doing keto, Tom’s changed to paleo and Javier’s gone plant-based.  Cathy defends keto and tells Tom he’s making a mistake doing paleo.  Tom tells Cathy that she shouldn’t be eating cheese. And Javier  takes both of them to task for eating too much meat.

Like baseball teams, diets have their teams  and fans who passionately support and defend them.  We have become members of different diet tribes.

Diet tribes are based partly on food differences, but partly on the people we tend to hang around with.  Being a part of a tribe can be helpful at times. For example, if you’re hosting a dinner you can ask, “What are your food preferences?” and expect to get simple responses like, “low carb,” “gluten free” and “vegan.”  The tribes can subdivide, of course.  You might hear “lacto-ovo-vegetarian” or “no dairy, low carb.”

Tribe types can also make for lively conversations, which can be as partisan as politics and sports.  I once overhead a conversation which ran like this:  “I’m doing keto.” Reply: “Keto’s not good for you, I tried it.”  Response: “You didn’t do the real keto.” Fascinating.

Apart from their role in our social lives, there are many problems associated with Diet Tribes. For one, they tend to create just two options, for or against.  For another, they can limit our interest in understanding the science underlying the benefits of different diets.  It’s all too easy to simply choose a tribe based on a friend’s advice or, perhaps, a preference for one that is very restrictive so you can demonstrate a firm resolve to follow it.  No cheating.

Let’s be honest, nutrition can be incredibly confusing, with far too many technical terms and scientific nomenclature.  “I’m doing keto.” simplifies and explains at the same time.

Membership in diet tribes reduces complexity in deciding what to eat. Simplification in our age of information anxiety certainly serves a useful purpose.

However, this particular simplification can lead to a real difficulties in understanding the factors that contribute to good health. Being in a tribe can limit your search for new information. Why? Because you now have a solution and don’t have to look any further. Thinking that you already know all about something is one of the biggest obstacles to learning more about it.

If membership in diet tribes led to lots of people accomplishing their health goals, I wouldn’t be pointing out the downside.  But the downside is considerable, because the sad truth is that, in the long run, most diets don’t actually work for most people, for reasons that are addressed in various eSavvyHealth articles.

Our advice:  Keep your views flexible. Cultivate your curiosity and actively seek out new information, even if it might conflict with what you already believe to be true.  (In fact, if you really wanted to take a scientific approach to this, you would deliberately search for such information.)

Approach news headlines about the latest studies with a healthy skepticism. The truth is that it’s very, very difficult to study the long-term results of diets.  Short term studies yes, but health is affected by a wide array of factors over many years. A valid study would have to consider the influence of all these factors for multiple people over decades. How does one do this well and accurately?

What’s the solution? Instead of joining a tribe, adopt a pattern of eating which promotes good metabolic health—one which supports excellent blood sugar regulation, good blood pressure numbers, normal levels of body fat, and healthy energy production.  You can learn more about this in our Diet Introduction Guidebook.

Our approach is designed to inform rather than advocate.  We want to help you better understand why you’ve decided to eat what you are eating.  And, to know why you might want to change it.

The “diet” we recommend is an easy one to follow: take one of our articles a week, which requires 5 to 10 minutes to read, and one course every few months, which takes 30-45 minutes.

Bob Graves

Bob Graves


Bob Graves is a long-time veteran of publishing of health, environmental and public-benefit information. He holds a Masters degree in Nutrition from UC Davis.

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