How my family replaced religion with nutrition, fitness

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article titled ‘Is a Paleo Diet Healthy?’, where two dieticians argued over the merits of the Paleo diet. The dietician arguing in favor of the Paleo diet cited the diet’s ability to stabilize blood sugar as well as ensure weight loss. The dietician arguing against the Paleo diet criticized the diet for not being nutritionally sound and of limited health benefit given its strictness.   

As I was reading the article, I felt a headache coming on. It was like watching an episode of CNN’s ‘Crossfire,’ where liberals and conservatives yell over one another while ‘discussing’ such delicate issues as abortion or same-sex marriage. There was no way for these two dieticians to agree nor did they have any intent of hearing the other’s perspective. It struck me that the discord between these experts had a religious fervor.  

In my family, we are not traditionally religious. My siblings, cousins and I were all raised Catholic but none of us are still practicing. Over the years, what has replaced Catholicism, however, is a devout belief in fitness and nutrition. My sister and her husband are vegan. My cousin is a trained Paleo chef and health coach. I don’t subscribe to a particular nutritional philosophy but I think it’s fair to say that I practice exercise as my religion.  

During family events, a lot of energy is spent trying to figure out what food to serve. ‘Susan will eat meat, but she won’t eat pasta.’ 

‘Ann will eat kale but not if it is cooked with butter.’ 

‘Lauren will want dessert but she’s going to make us all run a 5K in the morning.’

At holidays, some families light candles on the Menorah. My family discusses the ills of Monsanto, the inflammatory properties of dairy, and the likelihood that I’ll get injured doing deadlifts. It always starts out light-hearted and fun, but often becomes less playful as the night continues. 

‘Lauren, CrossFit is dangerous. And are you seriously still eating dairy?’

‘Ann, did you make a lentil loaf for Christmas dinner? That’s a festive meal?’

‘Susan, how can you say that eating bacon is healthy? How often do you get your cholesterol checked?’   

Each of us has our own firm opinions, as well as delusional notions that we can persuade the other’s thinking by presenting a valid argument. And, in that way, we are exactly like an episode of ‘Crossfire’. We talk over one another and dismiss each other’s arguments.   

Every family — agnostics and atheists included — has a belief system. Our beliefs give us a sense of control and comfort in a chaotic world. Whether we believe in God, organic kale or the merits of exercise, we cling to these ideas to help us to feel safe and protected. Personally, I would never subscribe to any religion that didn’t include dessert, but hey, that’s just me.  

Lauren Napolitano, Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist on staff at Bryn Mawr Hospital and in private practice in Bryn Mawr.  She frequently write articles reflecting on health and fitness trends in the Philadelphia area.  

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