Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The beginning of the end for medicinalized food?

In response to the ballooning trend of translating food into medicine, The U.S. World and News Report has brandished a rather hefty pin.

Last time I went to the overpriced supermarket nearest my neighborhood, I remembered again why it was worth visiting. Not that I needed to pay $6.00 for a bottle of shampoo, but the produce section is full of such pre-season temptations as lemon plums and papaya. Last time I visited they had little cards set up over the displays suggesting how to best prepare the more exotic fruits n' veg, but also little takeaway recipe cards featuring the food. A genius of marketing, if you ask me, since the recipe card has a nice shopping list of all the other ingredients which the store has thoughtfully stocked. This time, however, the recipe cards were gone. Instead there were blazing neon signs advocating some minute nutrient of the food that cured everything from dandruff to cancer in small, highly selective "clinical" trials. Very annoying. Personally? I don't peruse the store with the thought of "what would go better with roast beef, beta carotene or lycopene?" I'm pretty sure I don't know anybody who does, either. (Although I might be surprised, I know some strange people).

What this new article from the U.S. News and World Report points out is that when the trials were expanded, nutrients extracted from the original natural substance (like beta carotene pills instead of whole carrots), not only did these medicinalized nutrients fail to live up to their claims to help; they often caused actual harm:

"The poster child is beta carotene, which not only didn't stave off lung
but actually appeared to increase rates of the disease among
smokers. (A similar outcome was reported earlier this year with
.) "

Of course, the problem is that the issue is worked into an article that is, primarily, about weight loss. The article talks primarily about the trend away from individual nutrients in food, and more towards the wholesale appropriation of a particular culture's diet. I find it ironic that the same people who would scorn the belief behind the voodoo doll would wholeheartedly embrace the modern witchcraft of "If I eat like this person, I can become them."

""You find out who's healthy, then ask what they're eating and how much
they exercise," says K. Dun Gifford, founder and president of Oldways
Preservation Trust, the Boston-based food issues think tank that developed the
Mediterranean Diet Pyramid. "

Since there's kitchen-witches hedge-witches, I suggest we could coin this new breed the "health-witch". They concoct bubbling blender brews of the blood of blueberries and curdled milk (i.e. yogurt). They chant affirmations into a lighted mirror at twighlight, dress all in (slimming) black and inscribe their darkest secrets and arcane recipes into the grimoires they call food diaries; all in search of immortality.

Not all of them have cats :-)

To think that we can adopt the genetic code of a group of people by adopting their food is, at best, silly. Even to someone who honestly thinks that directing energy into a poppet and a candle can help someone overcome health issues.

"So, is it that easy: We all just have to eat like the Greeks (or the
Vietnamese, or the ancient Maya)? Well, yes and no. First, most of the evidence
comes from observation, not rigorous scientific trials, so it doesn't prove
cause and effect. "

What's that? A whiff of logic? in an article about dieting? Whodathunkit? Pity it's so scarce.

(Before anyone gets tetchy, I DO believe in voodoo dolls. I also believe in the efficacy of healing rituals, if they're done well. I've never claimed to not be a hypocrite. I also believe it's healthy to poke a little irony at your own beliefs every once in a while.)


Tari said...

Nice post.

I love flashing my hypocrite badge; my rationalization of choice is "magic is just science we don't understand yet."

occhiblu said...

Michael Pollan writes about this in some of his articles. I think part of it is not that clinical trials have proven that the nutrients in food can cause problems, but that nutrients taken out of food can cause problems. His take was that we've created this framework of nutrition that breaks food down into vitamins and antioxidants and whatever, and we think that framework explains the totality of how nutrition works, and in our "If natural is good, artificial is better!" culture, we then assume we can artificially recreate the bits that we've deemed important -- the vitamins and antioxidants and whatnot -- and throw out the actual food.

Turns out we can't, as the studies you've cited have shown. Which I don't think proves that food doesn't have medical benefits (even if only keeping you alive, which is a rather large one!), but that we have no f'ing clue how food actually works. It's much more complex than we really give it credit for.

Rachel said...

Love, love, love the blog!!! As a fat girl all my life, I never reached the unapologetic stage, and am now having to deal with being a fat person on the inside while shrinking on the outside. I will continue to fight fat phobia and prejudice, and hypocrisy in media no matter what my outside looks like.

Keep writing!