You eat organic food from your backyard garden and heal life's common ailments with food, not pharma. And your relatives all think you're crazy. So who's right? Nathanael Johnson wanted to know the answer to that question, and he wanted to support it with scientific evidence.
The child of self-professed hippies, his life had started off with a home birth and his childhood was filled with brown rice, backyard-garden-veggie dinners and sugar bans. His parents impressed upon him the importance of beneficial bacteria and a skepticism of Western medicine. At the same time, he was growing up surrounded by kids on sugar highs who seemed no less healthy than he was. Not content to just accept his parents' opinions as doctrine, he set off to write a book that would finally settle the debate of nature versus modern technology.
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The result is All-Natural*: *A Skeptic's Quest to Discover If the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing, and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier (Rodale, 2013)—a must-read for anyone wondering whether they should take up the next fad diet, if they should vaccinate a child or if they can cure a disease with food.
So did the hippie child find himself saved by technology? Not exactly, he says. "We know from our own lives that life is complicated," he says. "There are some things in which the natural way really makes a lot of sense, and there is a kernel of truth to the natural philosophy that maybe the mainstream is missing." At the same time, he says, science has worked many miracles.
Here are some of the lessons he learned while writing his book:
• Technology is a good thing. Don't overuse it. Time and again, Johnson came across instances of good technology gone awry. The number of technological interventions available to doctors in baby-delivery wards (fetal heart monitoring, inducement of labor, Cesarean section) seems to coincide with an increase in both infant and maternal mortality rates. Hog farms have become marvelously efficient and able to meet the public's demand for cheap meat, all while polluting the surrounding towns and subjecting animals to cruelty and torture. Pasteurization and other ways we've found to separate ourselves from germs seem to have made us sicker and less able to fight off infections.
That's not to say Johnson became antitechnology during his research. His research into vaccinations and a personal run-in with appendicitis gave him a renewed appreciation for Western medicine. And while he found plenty of research suggesting we need healthy bacteria to stay alive, the science couldn't convince him that pasteurization of milk was entirely a bad thing.
The problem, he writes, is that the technological approach tends to "zero in on a perceived problem while ignoring any larger, systemic problems that might exist." It's why doctors instinctively prescribe antidepressants even though talk therapy has been found to be more successful, and why food technicians reduce foods to their mere components and then process them to maximize those nutrients. "The technological perspective tends to insist on naming winners and losers, but I can argue neither for nature nor technology, only for reunification," he writes.
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• All of life is a gray area. "I think that we tend to think of things as very black and white," Johnson says. Take germs, for example. "Germs are dangerous, but we also need germs to be healthy. The toughest thing is to be able to accept these shades of gray."
People who ascribe to only the technological way of life or the natural way of life, he adds, are searching for certainty in an uncertain world, and that can be harmful, no matter which side you're on. With nutrition science, for instance, nutritionists' obsession with particular nutrients allowed food scientists to develop unhealthy foods, fortified with those nutrients but loaded with sugar, fat, and salt. Ardent supporters of raw milk continue to drink it despite a lack of scientific evidence that it is the cure-all they hope. In doing so, they could be exposing kids or other family members with less-robust immune systems to potentially disease-causing bacteria.
"On the whole, life is dangerous, and clinging too closely to safety is sometimes harmful in a really paradoxical way," he says. The best solution, whichever philosophy you live by, is to take a step back and look at the bigger picture, and the evidence. "Instead of making a faith-based decision on who is trustworthy and who is not, evaluate the evidence," he says.