Author Matt Fitzgerald on the Truth About Diet Cults

Matt Fitzgerald

Author, trainer, athlete and certified sports nutritionist Matt Fitzgerald’s work has appeared in a long list of glossy publications, including Men’s Fitness, Men’s Health, Men’s Journal, Outside, Shape, Stuff and Women’s Health. He’s written a number of nationally best-selling books — Racing Weight, Brain Training for Runners and Triathlete Magazine’s Essential Week-by-Week Training Guide — and his latest book, Diet Cults, is one of the most fascinating reads in the wellness space to hit shelves in recent months. Looking to debunk the myth that there is one end-all-be-all way to eat, we chatted with the author about his research findings and personal diet.

theFashionSpot: At what point did you seriously start thinking about writing this book?

Matt Fitzgerald: I believe it was sometime in 2009 when I first had the thought, “Wow — people sure have a hard time thinking rationally about diet and nutrition. Why is that?” I spent the next three years holding this question in the back of my mind as I went about my work as a sports nutritionist and nutrition writer before the concept of “diet cults” came to me.

tFS: Can you tell us a little bit about your research process?

MF: Very early on I decided that I wanted to use true stories and historical case studies rather than science alone to make my argument. So, the research process included a fun mix of reading scientific journals and talking to scientists as well as reading history books and just going out and talking to lots of people who followed particular diets.

tFS: Why do you think our culture is so fixated on quick-fix dieting solutions?

MF: The main reason we’re desperate for diet solutions of any kind is that so many of us are suffering from health problems (high blood pressure, insulin resistance, etc.) that are caused by poor diet. The main reason we’re fixated on quick-fix diet solutions in particular is that we want a magic bullet. On some level, most of us recognize that eating whole foods, avoiding junk foods, controlling portions and exercising is the most sensible formula, but we can’t help wanting something simpler and easier.


tFS: While you say there is no one way that is the only way, are there any mainstream diets that you do think are worth considering for long-term success?

MF: Many mainstream diets are perfectly healthy, or at least can be if approached with care. The mainstream diets I would steer people toward first are the Mediterranean diet, the Flexitarian diet and “clean eating.” Of course, I am doing my best to make the “agnostic healthy eating” approach I describe in Diet Cults mainstream as well!

tFS: Why do you think people believe so strongly that their diet is the best way, even when it proves to not be sustainable?

MF: Food is more than mere sustenance for human beings. It is also a source of individual, cultural and moral identity. When people make a decision to follow a particular diet, they tend to become attached to it on a deeply personal level. It’s not all about getting results; it’s also about taking comfort in the doctrine that supports the diet and feeling a part of the community that surrounds it.

tFS: Can you tell us a little bit about some of the interesting findings you discovered related to babies and dieting?

MF: Research by Yale psychologist Karen Wynn suggests that humans are born with a built-in moral sense. Wynn studies infant morality by tracking babies’ attentional focus as they watch puppets engage in various behaviors before being either punished or rewarded. In one study, Wynn found clear indications that babies prefer puppets who share their own food preferences and expect them to behave better generally as well. Such behavior seems little different from the negative judgments that followers of various dietary philosophies levy against one another!

tFS: You write about some interesting studies regarding how people can go about changing their eating habits. Can you share with us some of those findings that people might be able to apply in trying to kick-start a healthy lifestyle?

MF: Among men and women who succeed in losing a lot of weight and keeping the weight off long-term, the most commonly shared habits are regular exercise, frequent self-weighing and very consistent eating habits. That last one is especially interesting. Research indicates that most weight gain during adulthood occurs on weekends and over the holidays, when people indulge in foods they don’t often eat at other times. Successful dieters are much more consistent, eating more or less the same on Saturday as they do on Wednesday and the same in December as they do in June.

tFS: What are some of the most surprising things you learned while writing this book?

MF: One of the most surprising things I learned in writing Diet Cults is that it’s possible to live quite healthfully on a diet that consists almost entirely of potatoes, and many people have actually done it. Another interesting thing I learned is that more than 90 percent of people who believe they’re gluten intolerant turn out not to be when they get tested. More often they have trouble digesting a completely different type of nutrient known (by acronym) as a FODMAP.

tFS: Fitness myth that drives you nuts?

MF: The idea that low-intensity exercise is useless drives me nuts. By far the most popular form of exercise among those who have successfully maintained significant weight loss is walking.

tFS: Diet myth that drives you nuts?

MF: “Potatoes are fattening.” Not if you don’t fry them!

tFS: Can you tell us a little bit about your diet and workout routine? What would we find in your fridge/pantry?

MF: I eat the same breakfast most mornings; whole-grain, low-sugar cereal (e.g. Grape-Nuts Flakes) with fresh berries and organic whole milk, black coffee and orange juice. I work at home, so my typical lunch consists of dinner leftovers. My wife is the cook in the family, and she prepares a lot of baked fish, vegetable soups and high-quality versions of familiar menus, such as spaghetti and meatballs made with whole wheat pasta, homemade tomato sauce and grass-fed beef.

I snack mostly on nuts and fruit. I have a backyard full of fruit trees (cherry, grapefruit, pluot and date), so I don’t have to buy much. I treat myself to a square of dark chocolate after lunch and dinner.

The most conspicuous items in our pantry include breakfast cereal, various whole grains (quinoa, forbidden rice), various oils (olive, grapeseed) and my collection of hot sauces, which I put on just about everything!

I like to share my eating habits with the public because they look so normal. They’re just a high-quality version of an all-American diet. Now, if I were overweight and in poor health that would be one thing, but at 43 years old, I’m in excellent health and my weight (165 pounds at 6 foot 1 inch) is the same as it was when I was 26. I am living proof that you don’t have to eat weird to be healthy.

As for exercise, what can I say? I’m a competitive runner and triathlete, so I work out a lot, and because I have no children and no commute, I have plenty of time for it. Typically, I exercise twice a day at 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. I mix up lots of different activities; swimming, running, cycling, weightlifting and riding an ElliptiGO (an outdoor elliptical trainer on wheels). I also do a two-mile walk with my wife and our dog each morning that I don’t even count as a workout! I know this all sounds rather insane, but exercise is a lifelong passion of mine.

tFS: If there’s one thing you hope everyone takes away from your book, what would it be?

MF: Understand that there is no single “right” way to eat. There are lots of healthy diets out there, and yours doesn’t have to be perfect to be good enough. Everything you really need to know to maintain a healthy diet you’ve known since the third grade: Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, go easy on sweets and fast food and don’t stuff yourself!