Dietary peccadilloes have been a fact of the middle-class brunch for some years now. To be honest, I myself have dabbled in the voluntary “intolerance” of gluten and been seduced by the easy scientism that holds that modern grains are lethal. While it is absolutely true that there are people to whom gluten is toxic, it is also true that I and many others just enjoy making a pseudo-scientific fuss in restaurants and that the real poison inheres in our belief in the power of nutritional “healing”.

Of course, any consumer trend that steers me away from cream cakes can only have a good personal and public health outcome, and on the face of it, there is no lasting harm in people saying in restaurants “I can’t have fruit! It’s a liver loader!”. They sound ridiculous, just as I did when I once fretted to a waiter that quinoa might be “questionable” as a true gluten-free grain. The worst that can come of this next-level wankery is that staff spit, as they should, in our food.

But all this expensive posturing and all these Pete Evans-led diets are not the worst symptom of the disease of nutrition. Nor is the growth of consumer interest in one’s self-diagnosed intolerance, although the popular Paleo diet doesn’t do much for sustainable agriculture. Things start to become a bit more of a worry when the Healing Power of Nutrition is advocated for by ostensibly respectable science journalists. This was done with a numb force on a Catalyst program last year that prompted health broadcaster Dr Norman Swan to warn that people may die from misunderstanding.

Half-baked quasi-science is funny in a restaurant or the feverish pages of Nexus. But it’s not so funny when ideas about “good fat” or “compulsory medicine” kill people. But, death-by-motivated-reasoning aside, there’s another place we can look for evidence of the harm of Healing Food. And it is in the writing and the broad cultural influence of Sarah Wilson.

Before being reborn, like activated almond Pete Evans, as a “health coach” thanks to a course at a New York business that thinks exploring “more than 100 dietary theories” is a good thing and not a recipe for unscientific chaos, Wilson was a women’s magazine editor. Under her reign, Cosmopolitan snagged the Guinness title for the world’s biggest bikini photo shoot, a record that remains unbroken.

Via her blog, then an e-book and a multi-platform lifestyle smash I Quit Sugar, Wilson popularised a diet based in part on the “findings” of a man she describes as her mate, David Gillespie, a lawyer with no formal qualification in dietary science but some expert critics.

Wilson’s urging for us to desist in eating sugar, which she describes as more addictive than drugs, might not be a bad thing. Her reported tolerance of anti-vax crackpottery might be the thin edge of her sugarless wedge, but the awful abuse of science is not what struck me in a recent post in her immensely popular blog.

Could female self-hatred be the real cause of autoimmune disease?” she asks, and the answer is yes. She goes on to describe the “grassland” of the feminine self that has been over-tilled by what we must presume to be masculine forces of sugary evil. Anyhow, the essence of this rot unleavened by the air of thought is that if you are sick, you have done it to yourself.

This idea of emotionally self-inflicted disease is so woeful and woefully popular that the best book countering it has already been written. Cancer patient and marvelous critic Barbara Ehrenreich tore positive thinking a new one with Smile or Die.

Ehrenreich attacks with great force the grasslands inhabited by Wilson and all My Little Pony advocates for wellness from a medical science standpoint: she challenges the nonsense of happiness from its rainbow foundation and reminds the idiots who tell her to smile to improve her immune system that improvement to an immune system is the last thing any cancer patient wants. It’s a great and fascinating book. But what has become just as interesting to me of late is the political force of thinking such as Wilson’s.

Even if we reject the creationist-lite ideas of Paleo etc, we can all probably agree that eating has an impact on our health. But the notion that bad moods can cause, say, multiple sclerosis, which is largely held by neuroscience to be genetic given its historic occurrence in very particular ethnic groups, is almost fascistic. Like racial science, it holds that low moral character produces poor health.

Prescriptions for commitment to “well-being” are, if not actually fascist, then certainly neoliberal. There’s an easy and observable alliance between right-wing activists and the Health Freedom Movement, which suspects science of liberal apologism and promotes “choice” above anything including expert advice. The consumer-focused model of health, as advanced by Wilson, dovetails nicely with an industry that sees supply per demand as more important than supply per need.

When I am ill, I do not know what I need. That Wilson is encouraging me to look to my internal “grassland” is a hateful trend.  And not just because this is mumbo jumbo with a patina of “scientific” credibility but because it is neoliberalism with the fragrance of quinoa.

Peter Fray

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