Are Your Diet Choices Based in “Fact” or “Faith?” One Religion Professor Thinks It’s the Latter

by Katherine Pett

Looking for a nutritional antidote to food fears? Take a look at new release The Gluten Lie by Alan Levinovitz, PhD, and stop being scared of your sandwich.

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Despite what the sinister cover of The Gluten Lie by Alan Levinovitz, PhD, suggests, this book is not about gluten… entirely. When I first picked it up, I assumed the author meant to proclaim that gluten sensitivity, the diagnosis du jour, is nonexistent. But the book makes little attempt to determine what is and isn’t healthy. In fact, it’s the exact opposite of a diet book.

A religion professor at James Madison University, Levinovitz remains agnostic about the existence of gluten sensitivity: to him, it may exist or may not. In fact, he takes this neutral tone with every food fad he discusses, from banishing sugar to forbidding fat. There is evidence for and against each recommendation, but not as much as you’d think.

Levinovitz is primarily concerned with the belief systems that cause sweeping dietary crazes. As a professor of religion, no one is more capable of delivering the Good Word: Many of our beliefs about food are more religious than rational in nature. We unconsciously base food choices and food fears on faith, not facts.

The strict-sounding title is based on the book’s thesis: If you tell people something is true when the research is inconclusive, it’s a lie. Unlike religious leaders for whom myths are tools to give hope and guidance to a congregation, people who invoke science—rather than God—to inspire behavior change have an obligation to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

In the book, Levinovitz uncovers which nutrition “facts” are more rooted in legend than reality and reveals the (sometimes sordid) history behind them. For each of these hotly-debated food elements (ex., gluten, fat, salt, and sugar), there are authorities who swear that eliminating it will fix your life.

For example, gluten restriction, especially as a part of the CrossFit/Paleo paradigm, can seem a little, well, cultish. But it’s nothing compared to the originators of sodium-restriction who formed an actual cult. Known as “Ricers,” these people were a group of extremist dieters who followed low-sodium, rice-diet guru Dr. Walter Kemper of Duke University. The Rice Diet was not unlike today’s Paleo or Bulletproof diets in that it attracted a lot of attention and plenty of celebrity adherents, such as Buddy Hacket, Dom DeLuise, and multiple NFL players. It was different, however, in the sense that its founder kept a harem of devoted dieting women in houses he owned, connected their housing via walkways, and was named an heir in their wills.

But why, you might be wondering, would people believe that a no-sodium, all-rice diet will solve your problems? Especially now when people have access to Google, PubMed, and a world of scientific references and textbooks that tell us that balance is key to health? It turns out that it isn’t hard to make a convincing and seemingly science-based argument. All you need to do is pick a few studies, conveniently tweak the details so they match your framework, add a few scary statistics and unproven claims and, boom, you’ve written the next Wheat Belly.

To prove his point, Levinovitz shows how it’s done with a diet of his own invention: The UNpacked DietTM. In the book’s last chapter, Levinovitz creates a mock first chapter of a “science-based” diet book that explains how plastic packaging will make you sick and fat. The diet comes complete with numerous citations, references to seemingly authoritative researchers, and excellent graphics tracking bottled water use and the rise in obesity. Even though I knew the diet was meant to be facetious, I found myself seriously considering some of the arguments. “That sounds reasonable,” I heard my inner-voice saying.

Just after he nearly convinced me that plastic really is the source of all my problems, Levinovitz then repeats the entire chapter, but with cartoon thought bubbles pointing out each flaw in the reasoning. Every single point that seemed so meaningful is actually a careful misrepresentation of evidence that doesn’t prove nearly as much as the “author” would like. The similarities between the writing in The UNpacked DietTM and any other diet book gracing the bestseller list are uncanny. In fact, it made me wonder if Dr. Levinovitz missed an opportunity by deciding to pull back the curtain on the genre, rather than to partake in its riches.

Overall take? If you work in wellness or you’re just an avid follower of nutrition in the news, you need this book. If you have an annoying friend who bugs you about the newest “antinutrient,” you need this book so you can toss it to your annoying friend while you run away. This book is timely, given the wake of The Food Babe, expands understanding of the belief systems that underlie our country’s disordered eating culture, and acts as a reset button for our own food prejudices.

While he may not make the point directly, it is implied throughout the book: You can’t cheat death with “one simple trick” to get rid of belly fat. There is no toxic nutrient that causes all disease. So chill out. Eat your sandwich.

Interested? Check out a recent lecture by Levinovitz, where he explains the concept of his book:

Katherine Pett is a first-year Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition student at The Friedman School.  Follow her on twitter @smarfdoc or contact her at katherine.docimo@tufts.edu. 

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