Since earlier last year, I’ve done extensive reading, largely but not entirely focused on health. This has particularly concerned diet and nutrition, although it has crossed over into the territory of mental health with neurocognitive issues, addiction, autism, and much else, with my personal concern being that of depression. The point of this post is to consider some of the historical background. Before I get to that, let me explain how my recent interests have developed.
What got me heading in this direction was the documentary The Magic Pill. It’s about the paleo diet. The practical advice was worth the time spent, though other things drew me into the the larger arena of low-carb debate. The thing about the paleo diet is that it offers a framework of understanding that includes many scientific fields involving health beyond only diet and also it explores historical records, anthropological research, and archaeological evidence. The paleo diet community in particular, along with the low-carb diet community in general, is also influenced by the traditional foods approach of Sally Fallon Morrell. She is the lady who, more than anyone else, popularized the work of Weston A. Price, an early 20th century dentist who traveled the world and studied traditional populations. I was already familiar with this area from having reading Morrell’s first book in the late ’90s or early aughts.
New to me was the writings of Gary Taubes and Nina Teicholz, two science journalists who have helped to shift the paradigm in nutritional studies. They accomplished this task by presenting not only detailed surveys of the research and other evidence but in further contextualizing the history of powerful figures, institutions, and organizations that shaped the modern industrial diet. I didn’t realize how far back this debate went with writings on fasting for epilepsy found in ancient texts and recommendations of a low-carb diet (apparently ketogenic) for diabetes appearing in the 1790s, along with various low-carb and animal-based diets being popularized for weight-loss and general health during the 19th century, and then the ketogenic diet was studied for epilepsy beginning in the 1920s. Yet few know this history.
Ancel Keys was one of those powerful figures who, in suppressing his critics and silencing debate, effectively advocated for the standard American diet of high-carbs, grains, fruits, vegetables, and industrial seed oils. In The Magic Pill, more recent context is given in following the South African trial of Tim Noakes. Other documentaries have covered this kind of material, often with interviews with Gary Taubes and Nina Teicholz. There has been immense drama involved and, in the past, there was also much public disagreement and discussion. Only now is that returning to mainstream awareness in the corporate media, largely because social media has forced it out into the open. But what interests me is how old is the debate and often in the past much more lively.
The post-revolutionary era created a sense of crisis that, by the mid-19th century, was becoming a moral panic. The culture wars were taking shape. The difference back then was that there was much more of a sense of the connection between physical health, mental health, moral health, and societal health. As a broad understanding, health was seen as key and this was informed by the developing scientific consciousness and free speech movement. The hunger for knowledge was hard to suppress, although there were many attempts as the century went on. I tried to give a sense of this period in two massive posts, The Crisis of Identity and The Agricultural Mind. It’s hard to imagine what that must’ve been like. That scientific debate and public debate was largely shut down around the World War era, as the oppressive Cold War era took over. Why?
It is strange. The work of Taubes and Teicholz gives hint to what changed, although the original debate was much wider than diet and nutrition. The info I’ve found about the past has largely come from scholarship in other fields, such as historical and literary studies. Those older lines of thought are mostly treated as historical curiosities at this point, background info for the analysis of entirely other subjects. As for the majority of scientists, doctors and nutritionists these days, they are almost entirely ignorant of the ideologies that shaped modern thought about disease and health.
This is seen, as I point out, in how Galen’s ancient Greek theory of humors as incorporated into Medieval Christianity appears to be the direct source of the basic arguments for a plant-based diet, specifically in terms of the scapegoating of red meat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Among what I’ve come across, the one scholarly book that covers this in detail is Food and Faith in Christian Culture edited by Ken Albala and Trudy Eden. Bringing that into present times, Belinda Fettke dug up how so much of contemporary nutritional studies and dietary advice was built on the foundation of 19th-20th century vegan advocacy by the Seventh Day Adventists. I’ve never met anyone adhering to “plant-based” ideology who knows this history. Yet now it is becoming common knowledge in the low-carb world.
On the literary end of things, there is a fascinating work by Bryan Kozlowski, The Jane Austen Diet. I enjoyed reading it, in spite of never having cracked open a book by Jane Austen. Kozlowski, although no scholar, was able to dredge up much of interest about those post-revolutionary decades in British society. For one, he shows how obesity was becoming noticeable all the way back then and many were aware of the benefits of low-carb diets. He also makes clear that the ability to maintain a vegetable garden was a sign of immense wealth, not a means for putting much food on the tables of the poor — this is corroborated by Teicholz discussion of how gardening in American society, prior to modern technology and chemicals, was difficult and not dependable. More importantly, Kozlowski’s book explains what ‘sensibility’ meant back then, related to ‘nerves’ and ‘vapors’ and later on given the more scientific-sounding label of ‘neurasthenia’.
I came across another literary example of historical exegesis about health and diet, Sander L. Gilman’s Franz Kafka, the Jewish Patient. Kafka was an interesting case, as a lifelong hypochondriac who, it turns out, had good reason to be. He felt that he had inherited a weak constitution and blamed this on his psychological troubles, but more likely causes were urbanization, industrialization, and a vegetarian diet that probably also was a high-carb diet based on nutrient-depleted processed foods; and before the time when industrial foods were fortified and many nutritional supplements were available.
What was most educational, though, about the text was Gilman’s historical details on tuberculosis in European thought, specifically in relationship to Jews. To some extent, Kafka had internalized racial ideology and that is unsurprising. Eugenics was in the air and racial ideology penetrated everything, especially health in terms of racial hygiene. Even for those who weren’t eugenicists, all debate of that era was marked by the expected biases and limitations. Some theorizing was better than others and for certain not all of it was racist, but the entire debate maybe was tainted by the events that would follow. With the defeat of the Nazis, eugenics fell out of favor for obvious reasons and an entire era of debate was silenced, even many of the arguments that were opposed to or separate form eugenics. Then historical amnesia set in, as many people wanted to forget the past and instead focus on the future. That was unfortunate. The past doesn’t simply disappear but continues to haunt us.
That earlier debate was a struggle between explanations and narratives. With modernity fully taking hold, people wanted to understand what was happening to humanity and where it was heading. It was a time of contrasts which made the consequences of modernity quite stark. There were plenty of communities that were still pre-industrial, rural, and traditional, but since then most of these communities have died away. The diseases of civilization, at this point, have become increasingly normalized as living memory of anything else has disappeared. It’s not that the desire for ideological explanations has disappeared. What happened was, with the victory of WWII, a particular grand narrative came to dominate the entire Western world and there simply were no other grand narratives to compete with it. Much of the pre-war debate and even scientific knowledge, especially in Europe, was forgotten as the records of it were destroyed, weren’t translated, or lost perceived relevance.
Nonetheless, all of those old ideological conflicts were left unresolved. The concerns then are still concerns now. So many problems worried about back then are getting worse. The connections between various aspects of health have regained their old sense of urgency. The public is once again challenging authorities, questioning received truths, and seeking new meaning. The debate never ended and here we are again, and one could add that fascism also is back rearing its ugly head. It’s worrisome that the political left seems to be slow on the uptake. There are reactionary right-wingers like Jordan Peterson who are offering visions of meaning and also who have become significant figures in the dietary world, by way of the carnivore diet he and his daughter are on. T?hen there are the conspiratorial paleo-libertarians such as Tristan Haggard, another carnivore advocate.
This is far from being limited to carnivory and the low-carb community includes those across the political spectrum, but it seems to be the right-wingers who are speaking the loudest. The left-wingers who are speaking out on diet come from the confluence of veganism/vegetarianism and environmentalism, as seen with EAT-Lancet (Dietary Dictocrats of EAT-Lancet). The problem with this, besides much of this narrative being false (Carnivore is Vegan), is that it is disconnected from the past. The right-wing is speaking more to the past than is the left-wing, such as Trump’s ability to invoke and combine the Populist and Progressive rhetoric from earlier last century. The political left is struggling to keep up and is being led down ideological dead-ends.
If we want to understand our situation now, we better study carefully what was happening in centuries past. We are having the same old debates without realizing it and we very well might see them lead to the same kinds of unhappy results.