"Detoxing" Is Just Make-Believe, Says Expert


Is the juice cleanse worth the flat stomach? (Photo: Tyler Joe)

Put down that gluten-free paleo muffin and cold-pressed green juice and listen up: Alan Levinovitz wants to cure you of your Dr. Ozitis. In his new book, The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths About What You Eat, this professor of religion takes on the contemporary taboos of avoiding gluten, sugar, fat, and salt. His point? Science shows there is no salvation to be found, physically or spiritually, in abstaining from such foods. And yet, the fact that gluten-free foodstuffs is now a $10.5 billion dollar industry, and the juice cleanse business is north of $5 billion, suggests that a good many of us can’t help but indulge in a little magical thinking when it comes to our diets.

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We caught up with Levinovitz to talk about why certain food myths are so popular today, the lack of science supporting them, and why humans continue to be so damn susceptible to snake oil salesmen.

You’re a religion scholar who wrote a book about diets. What’s the connection?
I specialize in Chinese religion. Nearly 2,000 years ago, a group of monks claimed that if you avoided eating grains, you could live forever, clear up your skin, resist disease, fly, and teleport. Then, a couple hundred years later, [their] prohibition shifted from grains to meat—but the promises stayed the same. These same monks also said that people needed to take special, secret, expensive supplements if they really wanted to live forever.

Parallels to modern dieting jumped out at me: Contradictory diets that promise to cure or protect against disease, unproven supplement regimens. The use of a special diet to distinguish yourself from icky regular people who can’t see the truth. Purification, cleansing, the distinction between “clean” and “unclean” foods. And, of course, the incredible, unshakable faith that people place in the power of what they eat. So I decided to explore the history of food fads and fears—gluten, fat, sugar, and salt—to find out whether there were common superstitions and myths in all of them.

Your book is called The Gluten Lie. How did gluten go from a little-know grain protein to this, when avoided, magic panacea?
The first, most important, thing to point out is that sensitivity to gluten is very real. People with celiac disease cannot eat any gluten, and there is also evidence suggesting that some people without celiac—including those who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive issues—may benefit from a gluten-free or low-carbohydrate diet.

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Unfortunately, when a food causes problems for a small portion of the population, it’s easy to believe that it’s bad for everyone. In the 1990s there was a surge of parents treating their autistic children with gluten-free diets and reporting incredible results. But despite repeated experiments, science has failed to show the benefits of gluten-free for autism, no matter what celebrities like Jenny McCarthy might insist. Some successes were likely real, but due to parents treating undiagnosed celiac or gluten sensitivity that had been confused with autism.

At that time, the Atkins diet had already become wildly popular, scaring a nation away from carbs. Then the Paleo diet hit, with its very compelling story of a time in the past when everyone was healthier than sinful, gluttonous modern people. The same story, by the way, that ancient Chinese monks used to tell.

Gluten emerged as the perfect villain. Soon books were coming out, by doctors who weren’t experts in nutrition, claiming gluten caused every disease imaginable, from Alzheimer’s to cancer to ADHD. Just like the monks, they promised miracles from going gluten free: easy weight loss, the ability to cure yourself of anything and avoid chronic illness. And just like the monks, they are wrong.

Can you tell us a little bit about why we shouldn’t really be abstaining from gluten, sugar, fat, or salt unless we have a specific medical condition? Also, why is it so hard to test the effect of such diets on us?
All experts agree that self-diagnosing is very dangerous. If you try an elimination diet by yourself, you may end up treating the symptoms of another potentially serious condition and never find out about it. You may also end up believing you are sensitive to something when you aren’t. The human mind is very powerful, as everyone knows from the placebo effect. A dietary change can produce a placebo effect. And the placebo effect also has an opposite, the nocebo effect, where you experience symptoms just because you think something is harmful. These effects are well recognized by scientists, and they make it very difficult to test the physiological effects of a diet without being under highly controlled conditions.

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It’s also crucial to remember that eating—and living!—shouldn’t just be about physical health. As a nation, we’ve turned the dinner table into a pharmacy and life into a fitness routine. Food is a composite of nutrients; walks are exercise. To me that’s really sad. For many of us, aside from those with health conditions, neurotically pursuing perfect health destroys relationships: with food, with family and friends, with culture, and with yourself. Ironically, that can end up affecting your physical health. Specialists warn that for people who are prone to eating disorders, elimination diets can trigger binge eating or anorexia.

Is there really such a thing as detoxing?
On this one I’d like to quote the SciBabe, a hilarious science blogger who recently took down the Food Babe: “You’re constantly ‘detoxing’ just by living,” she says. “Your kidneys and liver take care of cleaning out unnecessary things in the body fairly efficiently on their own. Proof? The toilet paper industry.”

Of course it’s a little more complicated than that. Factory workers can get heavy metal poisoning, for example, and they really do need medical attention to have those poisons removed from their body. But drinking $11 bottles of fresh-pressed juice isn’t going to remove anything, except for money from your bank account.

What are some of the crazier examples of diet fads from history?
A hundred years ago, millions of Americans, including John D. Rockefeller, were chewing their food hundreds of times before swallowing it. A man by the name of Horace Fletcher had told them that was the key to good health. In the 1800s people were scared of sugar because they believed it made women sleep around! We’ve always been nutty about food, and looking back on all the crazy really made me question our attitudes today. One thing I hope to do with my book is put our modern dietary fads in perspective.

It seems as though there is a relationship between what people choose to eliminate and the culture around them. Food is a medium to reject the status quo, or distinguish yourself in terms of class, education, politics, etc. What’s going on there?
I see a crisis of authenticity. We’re all so afraid of being “fake.” And so you hear people talk about eating “real” food, as if by magic you can become more real by eating real food. There’s also the easy stigmatization of obese people, whose “sin” is visible—and often associated with class.

Websites like People of Walmart show there’s a market for hate: “Oh, look at those sad, fat, poor people, tricked into eating the Standard American Diet. I’m not like them! I eat real food.” Maybe you’re not like them, but your attitude is way more unhealthy than being overweight.

How does our current relationship with food manifest our capacity for magical thinking?
We build our lives and identities around powerful myths. The garden of Eden is huge: One bite of the wrong food and we fall from grace. Science has shown that people choose evidence and organize it based on how it fits into stories they already believe. Our belief that eating badly is the cause of all suffering is very deeply ingrained.

How much is this magical thinking embedded in our DNA?
People will always be susceptible to myth and superstition. But as we become aware of the role of those myths, their power over us diminishes. Once upon a time, myths about women’s subordination to men (Eve created from Adam’s rib) were extremely powerful. Now we recognize them for the foolishness that they are.

Okay. So we now know that many of the fad diets around today are bonkers. With that in mind, what, or how, should we be eating?
Instead of “You are what you eat,” I like to say, “You are how you eat.” For me, the most enjoyable way to eat is slowly, savoring your food, ideally food that has been prepared with care. Here’s the key: Set aside time for eating—don’t eat during time you’ve set aside for something else. Learn to appreciate food from diverse culinary traditions, and make them the right way, without skimping on butter, or salt, or sugar, if that’s what the recipes call for. I’ve found that this approach allows me to eat healthfully and in moderation—without invoking any weird rules, fad diets, or mythical thinking.

By Elissa Strauss

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