Or­ganic diet ad­vo­cate serves up a bam­boo­zling menu

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Fiona Wright’s

The back cover of Eat­ing Our­selves Sick states in bold type: “This is not a diet book.” That may well be true, but it’s dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine ex­actly what else it is. It’s not a science book or a cul­tural cri­tique. I found my­self, at times, des­per­ately hop­ing it was a satire.

Louise Stephen’s cen­tral ar­gu­ment is that our sys­tems of food pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion are dam­ag­ing our health. There’s noth­ing wrong with this premise. But the way she ar­gues her case is noth­ing short of bam­boo­zling, as are the im­pli­ca­tions she draws from it.

She claims that the three villains of modern agri­cul­ture — wheat, sugar and “seed oils” such as canola and corn — are re­spon­si­ble for a pan­demic of chronic ill­nesses: heart dis­ease and di­a­betes, but also can­cer, a raft of auto-im­mune dis­eases and even men­tal ill­ness. Sci­en­tific and di­etetic “ex­perts” (the word is of­ten put in scare quotes) are at best com­pro­mised, and at worst con­spir­ing to hide this fact from us. And the best way to cure th­ese dis­eases is by elim­i­nat­ing gluten, fruc­tose and “bad” fats from our di­ets. An un­pro­cessed, or­ganic diet, Stephen claims at one point, can even cure schizophre­nia.

The Mel­bourne-based au­thor has per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence in this. In her early 30s she was af­flicted by a life-threat­en­ing auto-im­mune dis­ease. It ended her cor­po­rate ca­reer. She sur­vived af­ter a kid­ney trans­plant. She points out that ath­letes and celebri­ties, in­clud­ing Venus Wil­liams and Se­lena Gomez, have au­toim­mune dis­eases, and Vic­to­ria Beck­ham, Mi­ley Cyrus and Gwyneth Pal­trow avoid gluten. Pete Evans, the main pro­po­nent of the pa­leo diet, has more than a mil­lion Face­book fol­low­ers.

Closer to home she men­tions a “case study” in­volv­ing her choco­late spoo­dle, whose hair de­vel­oped an un­sightly white streak. The cure was the ad­di­tion of “air-dried beef-liver crunch made lo­cally us­ing hu­man-grade beef” to his al­ready gluten-free and lo­cally pro­duced diet. The phrase “anec­do­tally, and in my ex­pe­ri­ence” also re­curs through the book.

Stephen does draw on sci­en­tific stud­ies as well, but where she is quick to point out lim­i­ta­tions and pos­si­ble con­flicts of in­ter­est in the work of main­stream ex­perts, she never in­di­cates why the stud­ies she is us­ing should be con- sidered more re­li­able. The study that is piv­otal to her ar­gu­ment was pub­lished in 1939 by Amer­i­can den­tist (not a med­i­cal doc­tor, a di­eti­tian or even an an­thro­pol­o­gist) We­ston Price. Price vis­ited var­i­ous in­dige­nous groups dur­ing the early stages of colo­nial con­tact and con­cluded that the in­tro­duc­tion of Western foods (wheat, sugar and canned goods) was hav­ing the sin­gle most dis­as­trous im­pact on the health of th­ese peo­ple. Stephen writes: In an era when a near di­etary dic­ta­tor­ship pre­vails and the act of cut­ting out a food group with­out med­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion will po­ten­tially earn you a di­ag­no­sis of a men­tal ill­ness such as “or­thorexia”, it’s re­fresh­ing note­wor­thy that Price’s in­for­ma­tion was not dis­tilled from re­search papers by pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ties and in­dus­try­funded nu­tri­tion in­sti­tutes (and nutri­tion­ists!) but by thou­sands — and in some cases mil­lions — of years of hu­man his­tory.

Leav­ing aside the claim that wheat did more dam­age to in­dige­nous pop­u­la­tions than dis­pos­ses­sion, the break­ing up of fam­i­lies and de­lib­er­ate at­tempts at geno­cide, when Stephen dis­cusses Price’s work she por­trays in­dige­nous groups as noble sav­ages with a “tribal wis­dom” that guided their di­etary choices. Her com­par­isons could be seen as racially in­sen­si­tive: “Like We­ston Price’s in­dige­nous re­search sub­jects, many of us now want to get off the reser­va­tion”; “sugar has come to be as­so­ci­ated with a new form of slav­ery … that binds us not to the plan­ta­tion, but to poor health and dis­abil­ity.”

Eat­ing Our­selves Sick is a book blind to its own priv­i­lege. As well as the afore­men­tioned choco­late spoo­dle, Stephen de­votes a chap­ter to dis­cussing the re­sults of her per­sonal ge­nomic map­ping, a process that costs close to $200. Her sug­ges­tions for in­creas­ing vi­ta­min C and sup­port­ing gut biota in­clude buy­ing or­ganic blue­ber­ries and or­ganic co­conut ke­fir, nei­ther of which come cheaply.

The al­ter­na­tive to this or­ganic style of eat­ing is a “buy now, pay later, what­ever’s quick­est, eas­i­est and cheap­est at­ti­tude”. Her scorn for peo­ple, es­pe­cially par­ents, who eat this way is clear. The “care­less and pos­si­bly un­e­d­u­cated be­hav­iour” of par­ents who rely on break­fast ce­re­als and pack­aged snacks sows the seeds for a “har­vest” of “daily pain and suf­fer­ing, dis­abil­ity, de­pres­sion, fi­nan­cial dis­tress, fam­ily breakup, poverty and early death” in their chil­dren.

Im­pli­cated in this is also the in­crease in work­ing moth­ers who no longer have time to pre­pare fam­ily meals (or brew or­ganic ke­fir). Stephen writes about this as though so­cioe­co­nomic stand­ing and work­ing con­di­tions were a choice. Peo­ple, she writes, need to “take re­spon­si­bil­ity for their own health” and their di­ets, re­gard­less of the con­di­tions, struc­tures and cir­cum­stances of their wider lives.

Eat­ing Our­selves Sick is a puni­tive book, and any credit that its ar­gu­ment has is un­done by the strange claims its au­thor makes, the even stranger ev­i­dence she re­lies on and the dan­ger­ous so­cial and po­lit­i­cal blind spots it never ac­knowl­edges. It is not an ex­pose; it is an ob­fus­ca­tion of a cul­tural de­bate that is al­ready con­fus­ing and in­tensely prob­lem­atic. most re­cent book is Small Acts of Dis­ap­pear­ance: Es­says on Hunger.

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