Organic diet advocate serves up a bamboozling menu
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.