The Gluten Lie: And other myths about what you eat

In his debut book, Professor Alan Levinovitz argues that dieting has become a form of religion in today’s secular world — filling gaps in our lives where religion once was more prominent, and providing a similar sense of community and ritual. He doesn’t see this as a positive shift.

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Overall, this was a thought-provoking and important read. Levinovitz reminds us that anxiety about what we eat can produce the very same symptoms as those linked to non-celiac gluten sensitivity. For our overall health — mental as well as physical — it’s just not constructive to fear food. (And as the author points out, it also complicates diagnosis.)

And yet, it doesn’t behoove us to transfer a misguided fear of gluten to anarchy-like rejection of every mainstream nutrition message we encounter -- a line, in my opinion, that Levinovitz straddled precariously throughout his book. Isn’t there something in-between? Not blind obedience nor complete mistrust, but rather careful discernment? Where does this recommendation come from? What is the science behind it and, let’s be real, what is the quality of that science? Does it work for me without causing undue anxiety? Can I do it without making my eating disorder worse? (honestly?)

If taken constructively, might Levinovitz’ book spur us toward deeper inquiry before drastically upending the way we eat — especially, when confronted with too certain headlines about something we know to be … complex.

Frustrating though it may be, it’s that ‘gray area’ where good science — and optimal nutrition — is found.

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Below, a few highlights that stuck with me from Levinovitz’ book and his interview on Food Psych:

  • True science is humble and cautious; it “embraces complexity in all its uncertainty and does not lightly pronounce on facts” (Levinovitz, 2015, p. 115). In other words, terms like “toxic villain” foods and “superfoods” don’t arise from reputable research (sorry!) -- we create them.

  • Monotonic fallacy. Coined by UPenn Psychology Professor, Paul Rozin, monotonic fallacy represents the common but often erroneous belief that if something is not good for us in large quantities, it must also not be good for us in small quantities (Levinovitz, 2017). What this thinking creates is essentially two buckets — “good” and “bad” — into which we categorize food. This gross dichotomy not only paves the way for heavily fortified foods and megadose supplements (never a good idea), but also diminishes the variety and joy in eating. (And here I can’t help but think of dietitian Ellyn Satter professing, “If the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers.”).

    Rozin is also known for his cross-cultural research suggesting that Americans both worry the most about food and yet derive the least satisfaction and enjoyment from it, as compared with populations in the other prosperous, developed countries of France, Japan, and Flemish Belgium (Rozin, Fischler, Imada, Sarubin, & Wrzesniewski, 1999). Rozin’s research team pointed to an irony that has proven even more relevant with time: To what extent might our food-related stress, meant to protect us from poor health, contribute to the very outcome we fear?

  • Diets are medical interventions, not without potential side effects. If it was clearly stated that xyz diet may cause stress and preoccupation with food, reduced relationship satisfaction, potential loss of bone and muscle mass, and weight gain in the long run ... might we pause?

  • Learn to recognize diets and nutrition claims that pathologize what it means to be human. To experience fatigue, difficulty concentrating and the occasional “brain fog” now and then is part of being human. Cutting out a certain food or food group will not eliminate these ups and downs of the human experience.

References:

Levinovitz, A. (2015). The gluten lie: And other myths about what you eat. Collingwood, Vic:  Nero, an imprint of Schwartz Publishing Pty Ltd.

Levinovitz, A. (Presenter). (2017, March 5). How to leave the religion of dieting with Alan Levinovitz [Audio Podcast]. In C. Harrison (Producer), Food psych. Retrieved from https://christyharrison.com/foodpsych/4/how-to-leave-the-religion-of-dieting-with-alan-levinovitz?rq=alan%20levinovitz.

Rozin, P., Fischler, C., Imada, S., Sarubin, A., & Wrzesniewski, A. (1999). Attitudes to food and the role of food in life in the U.S.A., Japan, Flemish Belgium and France: Possible implications for the diet-health debate. Appetite, 33, 163-180.