Does Going 'All Natural' Keep Us Healthier?

A discussion on birth, death, and medicine.

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Dr. Ana Maria Verissimo
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Vicki Nolan Marnin
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Does Going 'All Natural' Keep Us Healthier?
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Does Going 'All Natural' Keep Us Healthier?

Two possible meaningful personal stories.

One. I love going to farmer's markets, and one of the many things I'm apt to buy is the so-called salad mix which tends to be interesting and idiosyncratic. Local farmers often put all kinds of unusual greens into their mixes, including things that might strike you as weeds. Last year, after three episodes, I came to the realization that one of these salad mixes was making me sick.  Not deathly ill, mind you. But it didn't agree with me. So I stopped buying that one and never gave it another thought until reading the book we're discussing today.
 
Nathanael Johnson's "All Natural" made me realize I have a kind of blind faith in the plant world, and that it might actually be a dangerous attitude. Johnson's book also reinforced my belief -- on the opposite end -- that I'm probably taking at least one prescription med that isn't even right for my symptoms. We'll say more on today's show.
 
You can join the conversation - email colin@wnpr.org or Tweet us @wnprcolin.

  

Comments

E-mail from Eric

I wanted to offer a comment on-air, but the show didn't get to me, so I'm sending it in as your nice call screener suggested.

I wonder if putting things into boxes like "natural" vs "pharmaceutical" or "man-made" or "technological" is really helpful. In medicine, all we are concerned with is the effect of a treatment upon a human being: we have the scientific method to test treatments, nothing else. What does it matter if something is from nature or not? More often than not, these things are only opening the door for hucksters to peddle untested treatments on claims of their "naturalness."

I think that the impulse comes from a desire to not have to deal with the immense uncertainty and uncertainty that reason provides, to be able to behave in a natural way that is good and pure.

I don't think we can escape it, and in fact often our attempts to escape end up reinforcing the whole edifice. My favorite example of the nature of the trap is the current obsession with the Paleo diet. The diet's proponents claim that many of the things people eat today are toxic because people haven't had a chance to evolve the ability to deal with these things. The diet supposes that in the paleolithic era what people ate was pure and good and natural for humans, and that since neolithic times we have gotten away from these things.

The basic appeal of the "Paleo label" is that it is pretending to go back to a time when things just worked, when we just knew what to eat. Of course, the original people who came up with the idea for the diet drew upon the works of science for their ideas, so it's anything but natural. Under heavy criticism, the proponents of the diet claim that they are moving away from trying to reconstruct the diet of past man, that they are only using it as a way of approaching the study of modern diet, but they still cling to the "Paleo" label, as well as the tacit assumption that there is a diet that is truly natural for humans. If only one could be like the whale: instinctively eating plankton and not worrying about anything else instead of having to worry whether or not the sodium isoproponate or whatnot listed in your breakfast cereal is going to kill you.

In sum, I think it boils down to discomfort with reason, wanting a break from the massive weight and anxiety that it can sometimes place upon the human psyche.

Historian TJ Jackson Lears' No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 informs my thinking on this. It's an excellent book about the desire to escape modern life for a simpler world but being unable to by the sneaky trappings of the whole thing, though in a different way than I describe.

Anyway, food for thought, though hopefully not toxic (!).

Cheers,
Eric