Two topics always seem to inspire a robust conversation on my Facebook feed — diet and religion. I’m conflicted on both topics — I’m an atheist Jew who has, at various times, eaten clean, low fat, carb free and out of a garbage can (that last episode brought to you by the South Beach diet). So I was especially excited to read The Gluten Lie, a book about our collective religious obsession with what we eat.
Author Alan Levinovitz, a professor of religion and philosophy, uses the history of cultish health fads as a backdrop for discussing what we actually know about diet and nutrition (spoiler: not all that much, actually). Well before clean eating or the Paleo diet, there were ancient Daoist monks preaching a grain free diet to achieve good health and a long life. At various times and places in history — despite little to no empirical evidence — we’ve collectively freaked out about sugar, salt, MSG, fat, carbs, grains, gluten and sugar.
Let’s talk first about gluten free, probably the best dietary example of the conflicted relationship between science and nutrition. Most people know that celiac disease is a real medical condition that causes individuals to be sick if they ingest gluten. But what about everyone else eating a gluten free diet? Levinovitz takes a dim view of elimination diets and self-diagnosis, though he does make the point that science has not disproven non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Science tends to be slow, complicated and unsure of itself. Unfortunately, there are people struggling with real symptoms who could either be suffering from a condition that science has yet to properly identify or some sort of “nocebo effect.” The latter option sounds like a nice way of saying “you’re crazy,” but the truth is that it’s merely a side-effect of being human. Our brains can trick us into believing anything.
Levinovitz expresses compassion for people caught in the crosshairs, saving his full skeptical ire for “false prophets” like Dr. David Perlmutter and Dr. William Davis, who authored Grain Brain and Wheat Belly, respectively. He calls their books “collections of unfounded speculations, cherry-picked data, and overconfident hypotheses.” Devotees of these books recommend them with a religious zeal, even though there is no evidence to support wild allegations about grains and Alzheimer’s or the cocaine-like qualities of a piece of rye.
And it’s not just grains or gluten. Throughout history, cultish diet gurus have demonized fat, salt, grains, meat, sugar and sugar again (and again and again) based on either bad evidence or no evidence whatsoever. In recent years, we’ve practically been hit over the head with the dire warning that sugar is a highly addictive, toxic poison. Parents are particularly susceptible to this nonsense thanks to gurus like Dr. Robert Lustig and the documentary Fed Up. “Sugar, we are told, is like cigarettes and cocaine — and there is no ‘safe’ level of cocaine or tobacco consumption. You wouldn’t give your children bourbon and cigarettes on their birthday, so it’s probably wise not to feed them that toxic slice of cake.” But is any of that true?
Levinovitz interviews real experts in the field who tell us that the science is complicated and, unfortunately, unclear, but people like Lustig are more than willing to cherry pick data to appeal to their particular audience.
“Fed Up cites the statistic that ‘one in five Black children ages 2 to 19 is obese, compared with approximately one in seven White children.” Yet “Fed Up [doesn’t mention] that white children consume a higher proportion of their calories in the form of added sugar than black children. Neither mentions that family income is irrelevant to sugar consumption. Those facts, while essential to understanding the complicated relationship between sugar consumption and population demographics, distract from an appealing tale in which sugar does proportionate harm to poor minorities.”
Sugar’s relationship to obesity, diabetes, and addiction is actually far from settled, but that’s been ignored by the droves of parents eager to rely on the sugar as poison narrative to elevate their dietary choices into some sort of moral imperative.
Perlmutter, Davis, Lustig, the Food Babe and Dr. Oz can be added to a long historical list of cultish gurus who bastardize science to keep their followers hooked. Levinovitz tells us the sordid tale of the late Dr. Walter Kempner, the “rice diet” doctor formerly associated with Duke University, who apparently inspired extreme dieting, lavish gifts and sex slavery. The Food Babe and Dr. Oz may be far less extreme, but they too inspire a devoted following by preying on scientific illiteracy and fear of the “toxic” unknown.
According to Levinovitz, that constant and ever-increasing fear and anxiety is the real harm caused by our religious obsession with food. For many elimination dieters, once you remove one ingredient like gluten, you soon want to remove another, like meat. Or, better yet, some undefined category like “processed food” that allows you to spend the rest of your life obsessing about food rather than just enjoying it.
In the last half a year or so, I’ve stopped dieting all together. I eat whatever I want, whenever I want it, and I’ve lost weight in the process. Towards the end of The Gluten Lie, Levinovitz invites readers to do something similar — experiment by eating free from any “rules about category, quality, and quantity of food.” I prefer to leave you with no recommendations at all, other than to simply accept what we don’t know. “Numerous studies suggest that although some people successfully lose weight by dieting, in the majority of cases dieting results in more weight gain than doing nothing at all.” I can’t tell you what’s best for you. I can only sit here and enjoy my triple cream brie.