This paper first appeared in the Autumn 2012 issue of the Skeptical Adversaria, the newsletter of the Association for Skeptical Enquiry, pp 5-6.
Not too long ago in our nation's history the main concern about the food we ate was that it was not in sufficient supply and, for most people, what was available was limited in variety and quality. This remains the case for many people across the world and there are still people in our own society who, while not exactly starving, are undernourished because of their circumstances. But for most of us in the developed world, the quantity, quality and diversity of the food available to us are unimaginably better than at any previous time in our history. In fact we have so much, we are throwing a lot of it away. Should we announce this joyful message from the rooftops? Apparently not! It seems that the consumption of food remains a source of angst for many people and that this angst is, in turn, a source of income for quite a few others.
If we simply stopped worrying about food would we be any the worse? I doubt it, but many people might be put out of business.
The most obvious concern is overeating and its effect on appearance, fitness and health. There is no evidence that the more anxiety and effort that overweight individuals invest in their food consumption, the more likely they will achieve a normal weight. Yet people do worry, in numbers sufficient to spawn a huge industry around dieting, one that promises much but delivers hardly anything.
Worrying about overeating is not the only privilege that an abundance of good food bestows upon the more affluent members of the world community. The subtle tweaking of what foods we actually avail ourselves of from the rich panoply on offer can also be a significant preoccupation in our idle hours. Recently the 'Body and Soul' section of the Times contained an article by Dr John Biffra entitled 'Is your diet making depressed?' Dr Biffra reminds us that 'If you wake up feeling low, or are struggling with feelings of anxiety or depression, you are not alone. Millions of Britons now rely on medication to cope with life and recent figures show that prescriptions for antidepressants have risen by 9.1 per cent in just 12 months'. Since he would not otherwise have mentioned this, Dr Biffra clearly believes that there is a connection between these facts and the kinds of food we eat. Specifically, amongst the culprits he identifies are too much of the following: fruit (and the wrong types), sugar and carbohydrates generally, wheat, and the wrong kind of fats.
I have no doubt that the reader will have read many articles like this - i.e. on the theme 'Could X be causing your Y?', Y being depression, irritability, mood swings, anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, headaches and various psychosomatic complaints, children's tantrums, restlessness, and inattentiveness, and so on; X may be various types of food or drink, food additives, pollutants, electrical equipment, radiation from external sources, a constant low humming noise that most people can't hear, and the spirits of dead people.
Let's stay with food! What goes round comes round. The idea that certain foods may be the cause of psychological distress periodically comes to the fore and I recall that there was particular public and media interest in this in the late 1970s and 80s. There were several television programmes featuring the topic; I recall one with a studio audience of people claiming that their unhappiness and distress were caused by food allergy. It did seem to me somewhat perverse that, at the same time, harrowing images were appearing in the media of thousands of starving, emaciated people in what we then called 'the third world'.
One notable stimulus for these developments was a popular paperback book by the late Dr Richard Mackarness who, at the time of its publication, was a psychiatrist at Park Prewitt Hospital in Basingstoke. The title of the book, first published in 1976, was Not all in the Mind: How Unsuspected Food Allergy can Affect your Body and your Mind. On the back cover we were informed that 'In this new and vitally important book, Dr Richard Mackarness, doctor and psychiatrist, shows how millions may be made ill, physically and mentally, by common foods such as milk, eggs, coffee and white flour'.
So was 1976 a landmark date in the history of modern psychiatry? No. Food allergy and food intolerance have failed to establish themselves as serious considerations in the assessment and treatment of people with mental health problems (although, of course, allergy is a major cause of serious physical illness for some people). But as I have said, for a time there was much public and media interest in the idea. Naturally the alternative medicine industry jumped on the bandwagon and clinics specialising in the diagnosis and treatment of food allergy sprouted up all over the place. Some thrive today but studies have repeatedly shown that (a) the diagnostic procedures used to detect allergy at these clinics is invalid and (b) many people are mistaken in their belief that they have a food allergy or intolerance.
Incidentally, some clinical psycho-logists at the time were also persuaded that food allergy might be the cause of their patients' problems and they began putting them on exclusion diets. This provoked a furious debate in the columns of the Bulletin of the British Psychological Society between one psychologist, who claimed that she had successfully treated her own depression by avoiding certain foods (always a warning sign) and others who considered that psychologists had no business instructing people on what foods they should and should not eat for medical reasons, this being the domain of nutritionists and dieticians.
Food and health have been in the news most recently in at least two respects. One concerns the results of research that contradicts the current fashion for believing that a diet very low in calories promotes a longer lifespan. Early work on mice held out the promise of this for humans, but more recent research on monkeys at the National Institute for Aging in Maryland and at Wisconsin National Primate Research Centre failed to support this. (The link to this paper appears no longer to be operative.)
The other announcement is that organic food, though more expensive than non-organic food, does not make you any healthier, according to researchers at Stanford University; see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-19465692 (but please bear in mind animal welfare).
So: enjoy your food, but don't abuse it!