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Our Healthful, Mindful, Gluten-Free Religion

Modern Americans care a lot about health—whether it involves paleo diets, crossfit, gym memberships, marathons, yoga, or meditation. Three stories this week highlighted different facets of our obsession with “health.”

First, Marina Olson has a thoughtful post over at Catholic Pulse on extreme fitness, and how it’s become a sort of religion for many Americans:

Extreme fitness – and, to a degree, fitness as undertaken in our society in general – incorporates the trappings of a moral schema: It requires its acolytes to practice self-denial, to strive to overcome, to practice a high degree of discipline in the pursuit of perfection. … It’s not surprising, then, that often more people can be seen in the gym than in church on Sunday. Both groups are seeking to defy death…

Olson’s piece offers an interesting lens for the other two pieces published this week. First, The New Yorker published an excellent article on the gluten-free craze. A doctor told author Michael Specter,

“We are seeing more and more cases of orthorexia nervosa”—people who progressively withdraw different foods in what they perceive as an attempt to improve their health. “First, they come off gluten. Then corn. Then soy. Then tomatoes. Then milk. After a while, they don’t have anything left to eat—and they proselytize about it.”

Finally, we have an article from The Spectator about the “mindfulness” movement, and its hidden dangers. Melanie McDonagh writes,

One of the difficulties mindfulness will face as it sweeps across the globe is that it quite clearly in fact is a religion, however much it might shy away from the word. … It’s ritual for those who don’t pray; communal practice for the individualist.

Each of these stories highlights a different trend in the health movement—related to exercise, eating, and meditation. And each touts their own virtues, their own vices, and their own legalism.

When it comes to exercise, you have the “weekend warriors“—the people who feel guilty about sitting at a desk all week, and thus cram all their workout activity into the weekend. Now, exercise is excellent and important, especially in our sedentary society. But the attitude we’re seeing here is often one of compulsion, not of enjoyment.

The same goes for the diet crazes and trends, whether they be gluten-free, paleo, vegan, or other: all of us ought to consider the impact of what we eat on our long-term health. But, at the same time, these rules and regulations can become menacing and unhealthy. They become their own religion of restriction and exclusion. They take the joy out of eating.

Mindfulness gives us a religion of mental health, peace, tolerance: it represents a movement away from institutions and towards self-regulated “inner peace.” But as McDonogh’s piece points out, being “mindful” does little to actually help serve and love the community and family around us. “Where Buddhism causes us to go within ourselves, to meditate inwardly, Christianity takes you out of yourself — to God and from there to others,” she writes.

Olson echoes these words in her piece about exercise: “This cult of the body, when physical perfection becomes the elusive and consuming goal, is a beast of a very different nature,” she writes. “It’s a vanity and pride that stems from an ethic that values the individual before all else; in a way, through this sort of practice, the individual becomes estranged from the community.”

This exclusion can also surface in the diet movement: it distances people from each other. You can’t let your kids participate in Halloween festivities (too much sugar). They can’t eat the snacks in Sunday school. You can’t eat the food served at family gatherings or friendly get-togethers. Of course, some people have dietary issues that necessitate specificity: I have good friends with celiac disease, IBS, shellfish allergies. And part of being in their community means being mindful of them when cooking and preparing menus. But if I, as a very normal and allergy-free person, insisted that everyone serve me gluten-free foods, it could become very frustrating, and very damaging to my friendships.

We’re searching for life and health—but are we searching in the wrong places? Of course, healthfulness is good: be it bodily, gastronomic, or mental. But when bodily health becomes our “religion,” our new legalism, it can have a damaging impact on our communities and relationships. What these three articles tell us, then, is this: your body is important. But don’t let it rule your life.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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