- CommentaryLet’s Eat, Let’s Worry
Commentary on Catherine Carstairs, “‘Our Sickness Record Is a National Disgrace’: Adelle Davis, Nutritional Determinism, and the Anxious 1970s.”
Since the time of Hippocrates, if not before, authors preoccupied with restoring, maintaining, and enhancing health have advised their readers on when, how, and what to eat. Constant themes have included avoiding excesses of wine, rich meats, and unripe fruit while integrating diet with the practice of other habits—sleep, work, exercise, sex—that deplete or augment the body’s humors/vital powers/energy/immune system. Late-nineteenth and twentieth century scientists hardly discovered the intricate connections between food, health, and illness, but they certainly reshaped them in their [End Page 491] laboratories. Early to mid-twentieth century popularizers and manufacturers helped to spread nutritionists’ discoveries and speculations, particularly about vitamins, as we know from Rima Apple’s book, Vitamania (Rutgers, 1996). At the same time, American reformers raised serious concerns about food, with notable worries about malnutrition in children, food safety, and industrial-scale food processing—uneasiness that only intensified after World War II (WWII). The result is our own age of food anxiety: is this bite a “bad” choice or a “good” one? Too much saturated fat or too little fiber? Is coffee okay? Have I remembered to take my Gingko biloba?
In “‘Our Sickness Record Is a National Disgrace,’ Adelle Davis, Nutritional Determinism, and the Anxious 1970s,” Catherine Carstairs introduces us to Davis’s books on food and nutrition, which included Let’s Have Healthy Children (1951) and Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit (1954). While first published between 1947 and 1965, Davis’s books became enormously popular in the early to mid-1970s. Davis, a trained nutritionist, carried the messages she learned during her education in the late 1920s and 1930s to audiences throughout the post-WWII decades, especially the value of vitamins for a healthy life. Her ideas about the evils of overly processed foods and pesticide-laden crops, along with the benefits of wheat germ, organically grown produce and unpasteurized milk particularly resonated in the counter-culture movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Carstairs deftly argues, however, that Davis’s fame in the early 1970s stemmed from her appeal to a broad audience of (white) consumers. She promoted meat as a vital source of protein, for instance, and urged nearly everyone to take vitamin and mineral supplements. Throughout her books, she urged individuals (really, of course, wives and mothers) to take responsibility for their own and their children’s health through proper diet, or face the consequences with illness (poor skin, fatigue) and disease (allergies, cancer, epilepsy). Davis, in short, both confirmed the economic, environmental, and domestic anxieties of the early 1970s and offered individuals ways to take charge of their own physical destinies.
Several recent authors, as Carstairs notes, have documented the rise of “nutritionism” (what matters about food is nutrition, not pleasure) and “healthism” (we are all morally responsible for our own health status) in America between the 1950s and the present. This has been a complex, dynamic process driven by market forces, [End Page 492] industry, government, consumerism, science, and medicine. Carstairs has added an important element to this discussion by emphasizing that beliefs and attitudes were shaped by popular books that have since disappeared from collective consciousness. While some historians of medicine have used the messages in popular media to explore the creation and dissemination of the new, scientized folklores of twentieth-century culture(s), more studies of the way that self-help authors, talk-show hosts, and, most recently, internet bloggers, have constructed faith in personal control over health would help us to understand both acceptance of, and resistance to, biomedical authorities.
Davis wrote in no uncertain terms that personal control over health had to focus on control over what we eat. Cartstairs shows how effectively Davis used fear to drive home her demand for constant vigilance. Those who bought and prepared food contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals (as additives or from farming methods), used the wrong cookware, or even let guests overindulge in cake, introduced unnecessary risks into their lives. While some might have followed her...