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Is the Raw Food Diet a Cult?

When I first went raw in 1996, and then announced to my family that I was going try to move to California the next year, one of my aunts was worried I might be getting into a cult.

Not that she thought that the raw food diet was a cult, but she had heard of the multiple cults in California, preying on young people.

So she was warning me, and at the time I just laughed at the idea that I could possibly get into a cult.

However, there’s a phrase that I heard then that only made sense later which is:

“There’s nothing like the zeal of the newly converted”

Over the years, I’ve seen people get into the raw food diet and later get involved with the more extreme variations, like fruitarianism, breatharianism, compulsive fasting, never ending “cleanses,” and so on.

I’ve experienced first-hand how raw foodists can be so blinded by their philosophy that they will often:

– Completely ignore obvious and serious warning signs that their health is going downhill
– Refuse to make any changes in their diet because they’ve found “the best”
– Alienate their friends and family with their militant approach

And I say that from experience. I did these exact three things!

So is the raw food diet a cult?

Well, it’s not an organized cult with one charismatic leader who brainwashes his followers into giving him their hard-earned money, abuses them in other ways and threatens them whenever they talk about leaving “the club.”

However, many people naturally will create an environment with the raw food diet that is strangely similar to that of a cult.

I’m not anti raw foods, by the way.

I’m only pointing out the weird ways in which people who think they’ve “liberated their minds” are actually enslaving themselves to another philosophy without compromises.

Let’s take a look at the 14 Characteristics of a Cult by the American Family Foundation and see if the raw food diet can sometime apply to them.

1. The group is focused on a living leader to whom members seem to display excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment.

Well, I’ve certainly seen that one happen. Many followers of famous raw food promoters, especially the more charismatic or influential ones, display these characteristics. Shall we name names?

2. The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

Many raw food circles are obsessed with converting more people to the raw food diet. However, this is not done in the same way cults do it. Members of a cult will proactively come to you to ask you to join the cult under a false pretense, like a personality test, or by asking you what you think about a certain event. Most raw foodists come into the “cult” through their own research or through the advice of a friend.

3. The group is preoccupied with making money.

The Raw Food Movement is not ONE group but a combination of many different people with different opinions. Among these people you’ll certainly find people that are obsessed with making money. However, we have to differentiate people making a living offering an honest product and service, and others pushing dangerous supplements using false science, or lying and plagiarizing to achieve their objectives. Overall people who make a living in raw foods are a hard-working, honest bunch, but there are some bad apples that ruin everything.

4.  Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

Yes! This is where I think many raw food circles are a cult. Whenever you hear a raw food expert talk, you get the feeling that it’s “his way or the highway.” Everyone else is stupid, but they have the absolute truth. And if you don’t get the results, it’s because you didn’t follow their advice properly. There is no room for compromise or questioning, and anyone who does is kicked out of the group. The sad reality is that many raw food groups operate this way.

5.  Mind-numbing techniques (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, debilitating work routines) are used to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

I haven’t seen that happen too much in raw food retreats, but what about you? I could always introduce new chants in my next raw food retreats!

6.  The leadership dictates sometimes in great detail how members should think, act, and feel (for example: members must get permission from leaders to date, change jobs, get married; leaders may prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, how to discipline children, and so forth).

Militant raw vegans can act this way. For example, unless one is 100% vegan, they are considered an “animal abuser.” If there’s a piece of leather on their shoes, then that is not allowed in the group. Overall, raw foodists haven’t reached the cult status in this category yet!

7.  The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and members (for example: the leader is considered the Messiah or an avatar; the group and/or the leader has a special mission to save humanity).

This is unfortunately true of almost all raw food groups. Raw foodism is extremely elitist because it claims to have found the answer to all of humanity’s health problems. They’re on a mission to save humanity, and raw foodists will always look down on people who eat a SAD diet, or who are overweight, and not understand why they can’t make a change in their life. Judgements are passed constantly without knowing anything about the people that are being judged.

8.  The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which causes conflict with the wider society.

This is absolutely true of the raw food diet. Raw foodists feel they can’t fit in the “outside” world. They can’t eat out with friends and family, because they can’t compromise on their diet. They feel alone yet they refuse to take part in many aspects of society because they are now above the rest of the world.

9.  The group’s leader is not accountable to any authorities (as are, for example, military commanders and ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream denominations).

We haven’t reached that stage yet…

10.  The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify means that members would have considered unethical before joining the group (for example: collecting money for bogus charities).

I haven’t seen that happen yet…

11.  The leadership induces guilt feelings in members in order to control them.

I’ve definitely see that happen a lot. WHen I was a raw foodist in California, my friends would make fun of people who used to eat a raw food diet but gave it up. This made me feel extremely guilty when I decided to experiment with cooked foods again, as if I was doing something terribly wrong.

12.  Members’ subservience to the group causes them to cut ties with family and friends, and to give up personal goals and activities that were of interest before joining the group.

While raw food leaders certainly don’t ask you to cut ties with your family and friends who are not raw foodists, the “us vs. them” philosophy that’s incorporated into the raw food message often makes people alienate their friends and family, and want to socialize only with people who can agree with them on that level.

13.  Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group.

So far I haven’t seen raw food potlucks encourage people to come back every day for more!

14.  Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

Again, I haven’t seen that happen too much. Although, many raw foodists look down on “cooked food eaters” and tend to look down even more on “ex-raw foodists,” the worst category of betrayers…

So in conclusion, it’s clear that the raw food diet is not a cult. However, many raw foodists create walls around them and act sometimes like their diet is a cult.

Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets.