badness

Vox has a nice piece about the nonsensical nature of “detox” diet regimens.

The idea can be opened up a little more, though. I think “auto-intoxication” is a mental tic that goes way beyond our physical well-being. That we are polluted with something that diminishes us is a pervasive kind of neuroticism, one arguably present in everything from dietary concerns to Scientology’s body thetans to the doctrine of original sin. I’ve come to believe it’s an evolutionary feature of humans, one related at the very least to our tendency toward spirituality and perhaps even to the kind of mammalian restlessness that we call “work ethic.”

When applied to food and health this drives me nuts, in no small part because I have had to grapple with my own relatives’ inventions in this genre. For years dad wouldn’t go to a conventional doctor for his disorientation and memory problems thanks to my aunt’s diagnosis of mercury poisoning, which proved robust despite various disconfirming test results. It doesn’t take much to sustain these suspicions. In his case, merely anecdotal observation of how symptoms (sometimes!) responded to nutritional supplements and, perhaps, the ecclesiastical satisfaction to be had through near-hourly observance of my aunt’s prescribed chelation regimen.

In the last few days I’ve seen these mystical habits of mind on a less worrying scale, as a guy I like and respect translated his negative opinion of Wal-mart–developed, presumably, because of their effects on workers and the economy–to guess that the chain’s produce might be particularly riddled with glyphosate, the purported negative health effects of which he had recently been reading about.

Some of this is probably due to the media’s translation of statistical accounts of epidemiological phenomena into stories that are causally simple enough to be understood by everyone. Something does something or it doesn’t; confidence intervals and statistical significance are the first thing to go when we compose a mental synopsis.

But I think much of it is in-built: an inherited need to seek personal purity (even if only in relative terms). I suppose there are worse ways for this to manifest than time spent in Whole Foods.