By Alan Levinovitz
(Adapted by the author from his forthcoming book “The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths About What You Eat“)
Jhatka. Kosher. Halal. Food taboos and sacred diets are a part of virtually every religious tradition, from Jewish prohibitions on pork to Mormon prohibitions on coffee. But many healthy eaters think they’ve left behind divinely ordained dinners. After all, their food choices now depend on scientific studies rather than holy texts, interpreted by people in lab coats instead of priestly robes. Reliable data on longevity have replaced anecdotes about long-lived prophets. Doesn’t that mean the way most of us eat is free of religious doctrine, superstitions, and myths?
Not even close. Just ask Paul Rozin, a bearded, no-nonsense psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. Rozin is best known for coining the phrase “the omnivore’s dilemma” — which food writer Michael Pollan popularized as the title of his 2006 best seller — and he has written extensively about the influence of superstition on how we perceive what we eat.
“It’s an immense problem,” Rozin tells me, with the exasperated air of someone who must repeatedly explain a self-evident truth. “Love of nature — it’s like a religion. You can show that natural pesticides, whatever that means, are more dangerous than artificial ones, but it doesn’t matter. No one will believe you.”
The mythic narrative of “unnatural” modernity and a “natural” paradise past is persuasive as ever. Religious figures like Adam and Eve are no longer plausible protagonists, so diet gurus replace them with Paleolithic, pre-agricultural, hard-bodied ancestors who raced playfully through the forest gathering berries and spearing wild boar, never once worrying about diabetes or autism. The foods that belong to that culinary past are good. The products of modernity, by contrast — MSG, grains, high-fructose corn syrup, genetically modified organisms, fast food — these are the toxic fruits of sin, the tempting offerings of a fearsome deity known as Big Food.
Scientific rhetoric disguises the unscientific roots of modern food fears. Saying we aren’t evolved to eat gluten or processed sugar sounds more factual than saying that God has forbidden them. But using the language of science doesn’t guarantee access to the insights of science. In the case of unfounded dietary advice, it merely provides a new vocabulary with which to rewrite unscientific myths.
Paradoxically, our confidence that science has all the answers makes it difficult to identify and dismiss lies about nutrition. Food seems simple to study. If we can put a man on the moon, transplant a heart, and manipulate DNA, then surely we can unpack the relationship between eating vegetables and living longer. There’s no obvious difficulty in figuring out if wine decreases the risk of heart disease, or if red meat increases the risk of colon cancer. Simply look at people who drink wine or eat red meat, and then compare them to those who don’t. Easy, right?
In fact, there is probably no branch of medicine more difficult or complicated than nutrition science, a complexity that plays out in the endless controversies about what — and how much — we should eat. High-quality studies of dietary practices are incredibly hard to design. How do you make a placebo piece of steak for your control group? Studies on the effect of diet and lifestyle in large populations are no less difficult. They depend on recollection and self-reporting, notoriously unreliable data. And even if that data were accurate — well, just tweak an equation, exclude a set of data points, isolate a different factor, and suddenly vegetarianism goes from increasing longevity to decreasing bone density.
In dealing with these intractable problems of study design and analysis, nutrition scientists who study “ideal diets” have made surprisingly little progress since biblical days. According to the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Daniel and his fellow Israelites were once held captive by the king of Babylon. Loyal to Moses’s dietary laws and afraid of defilement, Daniel requested what is almost certainly the first recorded trial of an elimination diet.
“Please test your servants for 10 days,” Daniel said to his guard. “Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.”
The guard agreed. At the end of the 10 days, Daniel and his friends “looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food.” (It doesn’t specify that their acne cleared up, but we can assume it did.)
Pre–20th century vegetarians cited Daniel as evidence of their diet’s superiority. Nowadays they invoke people like Dr. Dean Ornish, a well-known advocate of veganism and meditation. Ornish has published studies in prestigious medical journals on how his regimen prevents cancer and heart disease. News outlets and TV shows tout his approach as a scientifically proven way to “reverse aging.” They trust that his diet works, because unlike monks and biblical prophets, Ornish is a scientist and a doctor. But Ornish’s studies, despite their author’s pedigree, suffer from the same fundamental problems as Daniel’s study: a lead investigator highly invested in the success of his experiment, the absence of a placebo control, and lack of replication by other researchers. In both cases it’s impossible to distinguish between the actual power of vegetables and the effect of believing in the power of vegetables.
Eating in moderation has been the humdrum recommendation of common sense for thousands of years, and to that sage dietary advice, religion and science alike have added virtually nothing that stands up to rigorous scrutiny. People who tell you otherwise are, at best, exaggerating evidence — and remember, in science, exaggeration is a flat-out lie.
These lies aren’t just misleading. They’re bad for our culture and our health. In hopes of escaping death and disease, we fawn over dietary evangelists with megawatt smiles and six-pack abs, each one promising a different, revolutionary, “science-based” route to perfect health. We embrace one food taboo after another, a habit that clinical psychologists condemn as conducive to disordered eating.
The truth is that the real dietary demons are not so-called toxic foods: They are powerful persistent fictions that we treat as truth. The latest set of gurus pollutes our culture with new versions of the same timeless falsehoods. Gluten belongs to the fallen present, not paradise past. If you eat fat, you will become fat. Processed sugar is “unnatural.” These falsehoods produce paralyzing anxiety about food and a constant stream of contradictory claims about what we should eat, which in turn erodes public faith in the enterprise of science itself.
Enough is enough. In order to heal our culture we must counteract the standard American diet of food myths with healthy helpings of history and skepticism. These ingredients may taste unusual at first, but don’t worry—it won’t be long before you feel like a brand-new person, capable of laughing at the latest nutritional dogma and eating your dinner in peace.
Alan Levinovitz is assistant professor of religion at James Madison University. His academic work includes a focus on the intersection of religion and medicine. His writing has appeared in Slate, Wired, The LA Review of Books, The Believer, and The Millions, as well as academic journals. He lives in Charlottesville, Va.