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.
The Gluten Lie, written by Alan Levinovitz, PhD. Published by Regan Arts.
Jenny, is that you eating a quesadilla with chopsticks? If so, I love it/you.
Also, thanks for this post, it’s tough to figure out what’s real and what isn’t.
That’s me! Eating a pancake sort of thing stuffed with meat in China. Chinese taco? And thank you!
Trouble is knowing who is actually telling the truth. They all seem to make good, although oftentimes contradictory points. I can buy and read a book on the same topic by people who have completely opposite view points and they both make sense when you are reading it. It’s so very hard to spot the liars and misused stats. Though I totally saw through Dr. Oz right from the start. 😉
I agree. These “experts” are fond of cherry picking the data.
The fundamental problem is that we actually know very little about what foods are healthy and which are not, but we want to know, and so we make stuff up. Conventional medicine has been just about as bad about this as alternative. (Any readers remember when eggs were thought to raise cholesterol? Or that partially hydrogenated fats were originally touted as a healthier alternative to butter?) It is so difficult to tolerate lack of knowledge that we readily accept bad information as fact. From a scientific perspective, one can say very, very little about what is healthy and what is not. Alan Levinovitz does a great job of expositing this gap. The question is, can real people accept “we don’t know?” It’s hard. — Steven Bratman, MD orthorexia.com
People crave information, rules, structure, answers (Why can’t I lose weight? Why am I tired all the time? Why do I have stomach aches?) It’s difficult to feel powerless. I personally have a difficult time with the unknowable, but an even more difficult time with hypocrisy and bad information.
Well.. Here is the thing – a nutritionist will tell you something way different than, say, the jokers talking about a “food chart” at a school will. Like most things, politics gets involved, and what we think we know, or at least where told in school, is a “political” version of something more complicated, and as a result both a) not actually correct, and b) probably would still not be correct, if they hadn’t mangled the results for political reasons. Its.. only semi-true that we don’t know. We do, a lot, but its not the people that have a clue we end up listening to – we listen to doctors, who are not specialists in diet, who repeat things that are wrong, because both politics, and personal information, leads them to assume that the best known information on the subject is the “most accurate”. And, that is just the issue with so called “conventional medicine”. Alternative… ugh. That is literally someone with a “pin the tail on the donkey” game, who is being “guided” to the right answer by an endless mess of a) preliminary studies, b) lack of public knowledge of refutations of those studies, c) vague understanding of the already bad “conventional” health knowledge, d) a lot of subjective anecdotes, and e) the rest of the room chock full of people that are either “true believers” in serious nonsense, or may be actively trying to profit off of crazy shit, which they presume isn’t “dangerous”, even if, at the same time, its totally useless.
Its the difference between listening to the one guy in the room that knows where the damn tale goes, more or less, but may be near sighted, and will tell you, without any intent to do so, bad advice, simply out of a lack of being able to see the problem clearly, vs. 500 people, who don’t even know what a cow is, where its tail belongs, think its funny if you pin it in the wrong place, or that there is something “wrong” with the cow, so the tail should be someplace else in the first place, etc., none of whom have, save by shear accident, any damn clue, at all, what they are telling you to do.
You want to see how bad it is? Dominos has gluten-free crust. It uses the same ovens and pizza stones as their regular crust, and is therefore not recommended for people with celiac disease.
Literally the only people who need to worry about gluten, can’t eat something labeled ‘gluten-free’.
Hmm.. So, no, “The poison is determined by the dose?” Seriously, this is like saying that someone with, say, lactose intolerance will be just as bad off accidentally eating something with “some” milk in it, as though would consuming a large bowl of ice cream. Celiacs is **not** an allergy, its a failure to process certain proteins, just like lactose intolerance. A very tiny amount if something that triggers a severe reaction “could” kill someone, because, its a system wide reaction to a presumed foreign body, which causes an overreaction of the body. The reaction caused by gluten and lactose intolerance, and any similar things out there, which we may not know about yet, are a chemical process failure. They do not trigger an allergic reaction, they trigger a chemical one. A failure to process, not an overreaction to the presence of the substance. Logically, this means that small amounts are “safer” than large ones, and your pizza may not be that big of a problem, unlike, if, for example, you had a peanut allergy, and ate something that said, “May contain nuts”. Its not the same effect/process.
Now, I may be somehow totally wrong about this, but.. I doubt it, based on what I know of just what the differences are.
It’s not a chemical issue, it’s an auto-immune disorder, and it leads to small intestine damage even in small quantities. So for someone with celiac disease, small amounts are still very bad.
Ah. My mistake.