In her recently published Diet and the Disease of Civilization, Dr. Adrienne Rose Bitar argues that diet books capture the socio-political concerns of America. Looking at Paleo, Devotional (or ‘Eden’), Pacific Islander (or ‘Primitive’), and Detox Diets, she posits that the narratives of modern diet books both mourn and critique a loss of innocence, purity, and purpose. They criticize post-industrial excesses, addiction, technocratic alienation, and the disappearance of traditional morals and lifeways. These developments, authors contend, are showing themselves in a decline of physical health (obesity, hypertension, stress, diabetes) – conditions that result from the average American’s disconnect from nature and ‘natural’ ways of eating.
Scholarly examinations of dieting have yet to fully address these contemporary programs. As Bitar suggests, such diet regimens often Orientalize, exoticize, and primitivize indigenous cultures. They engage science in questionable ways, and also reveal readers’ desire for progressive local and global change. Modern diet regimens both mirror and grow from the hopes and fears of 21st century America – a nostalgia for easier, ostensibly healthier times and the possibility for future greatness, through self-determination and a return to pre-industrial, pre-colonial, and even prehistoric ways of eating and living.
David S Gerstle: Could you give a brief description of each of the diets you detail in the book? What are their dominant arguments about American bodies and society?
Adrienne Rose Bitar: Of the thousands of diet books that make up these four sub-genres, I found a consistent argument common to all: the Fall of Man. This is an arc between fantasies of the past and hopes for the future, hinged on the day-to-day efforts to improve the individual body. These four diets are organized around a mythical point on a timeline of human development. This is true of a fantasy of prehistory with the Paleo Diet, the Biblical stories of the Eden Diet, the pre-colonial paradise in the Primitive Diet, and the contemporary Detox narratives of an increasingly toxic world.
What unifies these diets is the Fall of Man story, but most often that story is embedded in actual nutritional advice. The Paleo Diet recommends forsaking all processed foods and products of agriculture, positioning dieters at the ‘moment’ before humans’ domestication of plants and animals. The Eden Diet is also very fruit and vegetable heavy, most often forsaking all meat – a heavily vegetarian diet, supposedly eaten by Adam and Eve. The Primitive Diet also operates toward rejecting ‘global commodity’ foods (sugar, coffee, tea), relying on so-called ‘pre-colonial’ or ‘native’ foods, such as yams, fish, or taro. And then the Detox Diet is a similar promotion of ‘natural’ foods, – detoxifying the body in a polluted, environmentally corrupted present.
DSG: It seems like ‘natural’ here is considered to be synonymous with ‘good’. The ‘unnatural’ takes place within the narratives’ shift away from pre-agricultural or pre-colonial practices, or those in the Book of Genesis. How does concept of the ‘disease of civilization’ relate to that idea of ‘natural’?
ARB: It works in two ways. On one hand, medical professionals identify the diseases of civilization, or (as they’re often called) ‘diseases of affluence’ or ‘Western diseases’, such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, or obesity. In these diagnoses, civilization itself is considered ‘diseased’. Civilization represses human nature, inhibits the body’s natural inclination towards health, and that repression leads to disease. For example, many diets teach that modern, processed, hyper-palatable foods override and corrupt your natural palate; the body begins to crave and eventually poisons itself with artificial, worldly foods. So by eating a natural diet, you become uninhibited, free, and more in tune with your body’s needs.
On the other, the diagnosis of a ‘diseased’ civilization demands that instinct itself become disciplined. Paleo diets, for example, do not just argue that you need to shed all the trappings of civilization to revive your inner caveman. These books say that you have to teach your instinct to reclaim its natural power. You don’t just escape the repression of civilization, but rather realign your primordial instincts away from its influence.
DSG: What’s the history of the disease of civilization?
ARB: The concept has been around for a long time. In older diagnoses like neurasthenia or dyspepsia, ‘over-civilization’ was seen as wreaking havoc on human bodies – or particular kinds of human bodies. The farmer who’s now chained to a desk job in the big city? He’s going to suffer from dyspepsia, because he’s repressing his wild spirit. Women were commonly diagnosed with neurasthenia because they were supposedly not capable of dealing with the stresses of modern life, like in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic example of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Are you familiar with the term American-itis?
ARB: It sounds like a joke, but it actually was another term used to describe how the American way of life and corporate culture restrict the body and constrain the spirit, causing diseases from within. I think this was the late 19th century.
DSG: That sounds about right. Especially with the terms like ‘dyspepsia’, which I link to movements started by Kellogg or Graham. Their diets had a lot of elements of Paleo in them, as well.
ARB: Exactly, and it wasn’t just religious reformers either. The caveman diet was also described by James Salisbury (who invented Salisbury Steak), when he was trying to cure tuberculosis in Civil War camps. He argued that raw meat could treat these ‘civilized’ diseases… which is particularly paradoxical because he was in the carnage of war. It was a sort of tricky, intellectual acrobatics.
DSG: Thinking of your research process, what were the data here? Did you encounter any challenges with the resources?
ARB: There were many challenges. First of all, I had to tell myself that I wasn’t going to study diets – I was just going to study books. When diets like Paleo or Detox are covered in popular media, you actually lose the richness of the text itself. Next, I had to distinguish what is and isn’t a diet book, because there wasn’t an archive or a single, working definition. I stuck to single-authored monographs. It was also difficult to acquire these texts because they’re not carried in libraries and they’re hard to buy. Thrift stores just throw them out. They’re disposable, with very little resale value. I used Craigslist and visited garage sales to buy complete collections of diet books.
But as soon as I started reading, the argument was apparent. It’s hard to miss this larger story about humankind, nature, and the corrupting influence of civilization. No matter what book – including something ostensibly medical like Atkins – even he tells the same story.
I also had to challenge some of the existing scholarship, because many theorists get mired in the ugliness of dieting. This was often the case with feminist critiques of diets – which I agree with and understand – but it’s very easy to miss the point if you think about weight loss, and not about the books and their narratives. Contemporary diets especially are not just for a woman trying to fit into a little black dress. Especially in the last twenty or so years since the declaration of the obesity epidemic, diets are attempting to be comprehensive stories of humankind and civilization.
DSG: Contextualizing your diet with this sweeping narrative of the Fall of Man is a pretty fascinating thing to do.
ARB: The narratives really elevate the day-to-day. These authors are not cynics. They’re sincere, naïve, hopeful, and ultimately willing to believe. If you’re looking at flashy doctors on television, you might just think these are just snake oil salesmen. But these authors are not just hucksters. Smart, educated people believe these narratives. And then, after reading about 20 of these, you start to see them as pretty persuasive stories.
DSG: Some of these diets like Paleo venerate modern science and technology, but others (like the Devotional Diet) seem to criticize them. What is the rhetorical function of scientific knowledge and authority in modern diet books?
ARB: They work to position the diets with authority. These are top-down directions on how to eat and live your life. So, with the Paleo Diet, there is a creative approach to incorporating science and evolutionary theory – for better or worse. The Paleo Diet also venerates instinct – this instinct is still in your body because the ‘spirit of the caveman’ is still within you.
Devotional diets use basically the same argument, but argue that instinct is embedded in your body because God gave you the body. If you’re channeling your instinct, you’re speaking to God. In this sense, ‘God’ is the Devotional Diet’s way of saying ‘Nature’. The instinct that has come down through the ages, all the way from Adam and Eve. Just like in the Paleo diet, where the caveman’s impulses are embedded in your body, you have to revive the instinct that God gave you. So, by avoiding sugar for ten days, you should be repulsed by candy bars because God only gave Adam and Eve strawberries and grapes. If you’re not repulsed by a Snickers Bar, it’s because you don’t yet know God.
DSG: Given that modern diets argue that the diseases of civilization are caused by processing and modifying food, it seems like these diets are arguing that modern technology interferes with the ‘natural’ way of eating.
ARB: Yes, in Paleo or Detox Diets, there is sometimes a narrative of conspiracy about ‘Franken-foods’ or the ‘Nutritional Industrial Military Complex’, where processed foods and healthcare are in cahoots to make you obese and then sell you insulin. Modern science and medicine are duping us and this particular diet is the only way to fight the ‘machine’.
DSG: So, some branches of science are valorized while others are part of the demonized. There’s some rhetorical gymnastics going on there.
ARB: The same is true of the Eat Right 4 Your Type and other body-typing diets. These take any form of difference in the human body and essentialize it into a kind of personalized nutritional approach. The ‘blood type’ diets are particularly nefarious, replicating these racial stories of some people being ‘older types’ than others. Some people are more closely related to their ape ancestors than other, more ‘civilized’ people, replicating these racial distinctions in a way that is supposedly set by science.
DSG: Those polygenic theories were discarded in the early 20th century. Mostly.
ARB: Right. Mostly. And unless you knew that, you might read people as inherently different because they had different blood types. It’s hard to be generous toward a diet which argues that people with supposedly ‘older’ blood types are more closely related to apes.
DSG: Thinking about forms of essentializing, how have the Pacific Islander (or ‘Primitive’) diets contributed to particular representations of the ‘Third World’?
ARB: Primitive diets often look to non-Western societies as a sort of living relic: a vestigial specimen of a more innocent past. This contributes to an idea of the Third World that is not uncommon: it is this ‘timeless’ place of innocence, natural beauty, where people have an intimate relationship with the body and its needs. And now, with the intrusion of Western Civilization, these people succumb to the siren song of its toxic foods. They are not up to the challenge and are slowly dying out.
The term ‘Imperial Nostalgia’ is useful here. Westerners are bemoaning what has been lost. But in these diets, the narrative is more than just nostalgia – the story is such that ‘they are dying now, but we’re next’. The Third World is set up as both this homogenous, eternal place, and a kind of ominous omen of what is to come. The colonial powers are just next in line. Imperial Nostalgia is tempered with this deep-seated dread.
DSG: In a similar way, Detox Diets court a kind of contemporary ‘global activism’ against impending devastation.
ARB: The narratives of Detoxification are showing how the shifting, increasingly damaged environment can hurt everyone. If you’re trying to save yourself, then you can’t help but to try to save other people because we are all already toxic – even unborn babies – and particularities of race, nation, age, and so on don’t matter because toxicity is a global threat.
Detoxers aren’t just pointing their fingers at toxic foods like tuna tainted with mercury or real problems like toxic lead levels in public water. Instead, they believe that civilization is itself toxic – in terms of air, water, exposure, mental stresses, everything – because their concept of the body is spongy and permeable. Detoxification at its core is political because it shows how individual health is inextricable from larger systems of industrial food production, the polluted environment, and, our poisonous civilization writ large.