Editor’s Note: This cross-post originally appeared on Grounded Parents and is written by Jenny Splitter
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?