Rita Christopher November 26 1979


Rita Christopher November 26 1979



Rita Christopher

Fourteen months ago, with an investment of $50,000, David Cooper opened Nutcracker Sweet, a Toronto natural foods emporium. In his first year of business, the 32year-old former furniture salesman and funeral director grossed $200,000. “I think people are tired of having their senses raped by Madison Avenue," he explains. “They want to have a choice about what they eat. ”

Shrugging off the magnificent scenery of Colorado ’s Rocky Mountains, a leggy blonde confessed she was anxious to leave Aspen. She found the drug scene “too heavy’’ and living expenses prohibitive.

But one thing prevented her from moving on. “I can’t go.

My nutritionist is here, ” she admitted in the reverential tones that another generation reserved for its analysts.

From Toronto to Aspen and beyond the evidence is mounting that a diet revolution is in progress. Nutrition, from carob cakes to megavitamins, is now big business. The Canadian health food industry estimated its revenues last year at $100 million and, in the United States, the figure reached an im-

pressive $1.5 billion. But the growing obsession with what we eat fuels more than the economy—it fuels our fantasies as well. Eating right, in fact, has

become as much a contemporary preoccupation as sex. In direct testimony to that fact, Dr. David Reuben, who wrote the best-selling Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask, in 1971, followed up with Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Nutrition, in 1978, a tract that decries the perilous quality of most commercially prepared foods. “Sex manuals are disappearing from the

shelves. I see nutrition books instead,” says Victoria, B.C., psychiatrist Abram Hoffer, a leader in the controversial field of megavitamin therapy. One leading Toronto bookstore manager says there are some 600 titles on diet and nutrition, a confusing potpourri ranging from Killer Salt to Food Is Your Best Medicine and Eat and Grow Younger.

Celebrities running all the way from comedian Dick Gregory (who whipped up a nutritional world beater called champ juice, which he claims helped Muhammad Ali wrest his title back from Leon Spinks) to John Lennon and Yoko Ono (who attended macrobiotic cooking classes) have become part of the mushrooming movement. And the beautiful people, as always, are running as fast as they can to stay in front of the fad. American designer Halston attributes his workaholic stamina to “lots of vitamins,” adding with the same certitude that marks his fashion pronouncements: “Eating less is in. Eating more is out.” Actress Cloris Leachman, who swears she cured herself of asthma by drinking only fruit juices, recommends a daily fare of “fruits, vegetables and nuts—and I don’t mean salted peanuts.”

The virtues and vices of diet have been hotly debated ever since Adam first bit the apple. Adam and Eve, in fact, figured prominently in North America’s first health food craze. Back in the early 19th century, Rev. Sylvester Graham of West Suffield, Connecticut, advocated a return to the diet he believed sustained the biblical pair in the Garden of Eden: raw fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts. Whole grain wafers, under the name Graham Crackers, constitute the Presbyterian pastor’s only claim to fame. Graham’s advocacy of natural cereals also led a family of

Michigan Seventh Day Adventists named Kellogg to manufacture in 1906 a new kind of cereal which is now known to millions as Kellogg’s Cornflakes.

Like Graham’s divinely inspired menu, the current diet revolution reflects far more than a simple desire to lose weight. To be sure, the inclination to shed unsightly bulges remains a fixture of contemporary lifestyles. The last decade alone, after all, witnessed a semi-hysterial progression from Dr. Irwin Stillman’s eight glasses of water a day to liquid protein to the currently fashionable Scarsdale diet, a high protein/ low carbohydrate regime. But the present mania represents an attempt to find tranquillity through the knife and fork, an extension of the pursuit of physical and spiritual unity that underlies such seemingly diverse phenomena as the relentless regimens of joggers and the burgeoning battalions of meditators.

Finally, eating right is for many a simple reaffirmation of those twin pillars of the contemporary North American creed: youth eternal is the supreme virtue, and death, in any form, is an unacceptable eventuality. “Our interest in food is part of a recurring cycle in the attempt to produce a happier, longer lasting life,” notes Toronto psychologist David Garner, who specializes in dietrelated problems. Adds Dr. Cortez F. Enloe, editor of Nutrition Today magazine: “We had all these wonderful medicines and people could see they weren’t affecting degenerative diseases like arthritis, cancer and arteriosclerosis. Looking around for other variables, some of us said, ‘Hey, let’s examine diet.’ ”

The forces motivating the great nutritional revolution mirror the concerns

of post-industrial society. Such phenomena as the gradual eastward spread of legendary West Coast flakiness (see box page 50), fears about the effects of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and the revolt against 20th-century technology have all been credited with contributing to the boom. And going to the ever-present bottom line, inflation is forcing middle-class shoppers to balance nutrients against cost on grocery lists as never before.

The prescriptions for eating right are as varied as the explanations for the nutrition boom. The latest rage on the California scene combines fruit juices, raw fruits and vegetables with therapist-administered enemas called colonics; devotees maintain that such a treatment will do everything from clearing up your skin to lifting depressions. And adherents of vegetarian diets, perhaps the most notable of which is the macrobiotic or brown rice diet, claim similar wonders for their regimens. Many recent recruits to vegetarianism, however, are not fully aware of the dietetic consequences of their new menus. Unlike animal protein, which contains sufficient amino acids for daily nutritional requirements, vegetable protein supplies such nutrients far more selectively. Vegetable proteins, therefore, should be eaten in combinations to assure a balanced diet. For example, cereals and grains containing one amino acid, methionine, should be eaten with legumes that supply another essential amino acid, lycine. (Available statistical data suggest that when proper nutritional guidelines are followed, vegetarians have lower rates of heart attack and cancer of the colon than meateaters.)

For another and rapidly growing group of people, the true path to better nutrition lies in massive doses of vitamins combined with strict regulation of sugar intake and avoidance of food additives. Pioneered by Dr. Abram Hoffer and British doctor Humphrey Osmond, megavitamin doses were first used in the treatment of seriously disturbed schizophrenics. But since the 1970 publication of Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling’s Vitamin C, the Common Cold, and the Flu, large doses of vitamins have been advocated for an array of psychic and physical ills ranging from insomnia and alcoholism to juvenile delinquency.

Despite such unconfirmed enthusiasm, the claims Pauling makes for vitamin C are still the subject of intense debate. In a test of Pauling’s theory, University of Toronto epidemiologist Dr. Terence Anderson found massive doses of vitamin C made no difference in the number of colds—though it ap-

parently moderated their severity. Undaunted, Pauling now advocates vitamin C not only for colds but for cancer therapy as well, and refuses to be fazed by the fact that Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic, after a series of tests, recently proclaimed the vitamin C cancer treatment ineffective. According to Pauling, the Mayo tests were conducted on patients who had already received chemotherapy, which works at cross-purposes to the vitamin treatments he advocates.

In general, orthodox nutritionists remain skeptical about the spectacular claims made for megavitamins. “At this point, I’d have to say it has very little scientific value,” says George Beaton, University of Toronto professor of nutrition and food science. Echoes nutrition consultant Jane Hope, who coauthors a nutrition column for the Toronto Star. “Some of the interest in these vitamins really scares me. Our information simply doesn’t support these treatments.” Megavitamin’s founding father, Hoffer, is impervious to such z criticism. “Doctors are usually 25 years d behind the general public,” he claims. | “In any case, a lot of young physicians tr are very interested in the work we are d doing.” I

Megavitamins and vegetarianism re| main dietetic extremes, nonetheless, for m most of those intent on eating right. To many, better nutrition simply means shopping at a health food store. Today, there are about 1,000 health food stores in Canada, a figure that has doubled in the past five years. To satisfy their flood of customers, store owners admit

many of the products they now sell, such as honey-laden snacks, are concessions to the less disciplined, newer members of their clientele who have not yet weaned themselves from the “demon sugar.” And to reassure some of the newcomers, David Cooper calls Nut-

cracker Sweet a “natural” rather than a health food store. “Health food gives an image of sterile packaging and weird people,” he explains. “We have designed

our stores to put people at ease—you know, marble counters, carpet, the look of an old-fashioned general store.”

Not all health food shoppers, to be sure, are nutritional innocents. Croft Woodruff, president of the Canadian Health Food Association and proprietor of a Vancouver store, describes his customers as “people who have a lot of information in general about what kind of stuff the industry puts into supermarket products.” But whatever their level of information, health food store shoppers pay for their convictions. While some health food retailers claim their prices on individual items compare favorably with those of larger, conventional food markets, most admit the costs of running smaller stores and buying from smaller suppliers inevitably lead to higher prices. And comparison-pricing of products with identical ingredients has shown consumers sometimes are charged up to 20 per cent more for the label bearing the word “natural.”

“If you like the taste of the health food products, go ahead and buy them,” says Elizabeth Bright-See, the University of Toronto nutrition professor who writes a nutrition column with Jane Hope. Adds Hope: “Look, the term ‘natural’ is a very imprecise one. The tummy doesn’t know a natural vitamin from a synthetic one. A careful shopper can do just as well in the supermarket.” Surprisingly, Abram Hoffer agrees with Hope on that score. “I don’t advocate a health food store or a supermarket,” he says. “All I warn is

that wherever you buy, buy carefully.” Naturally enough, that kind of talk is heresy to health food addicts who claim many of their critics are “captives of industry”—a phrase of insult so loosely applied that it covers anything from a giant food conglomerate to the innocent who spreads crunchy peanut butter on white bread. Equally galling to folks who are hooked on health food is the failure of many nutritionists to condemn Quarter Pounders, taco-flavored

pizzas and the manifold other triumphs of the “fast food” industry. “I think people have the idea that if something tastes good, it must be bad for them,” says Nancy Schwartz, a professor of nutrition at the University of British Columbia. Not so, says nutrition professor Gilbert Leveille of Michigan State University. “There is no such thing as good food or bad food,” he reports. “What is important is the balance of things that we eat. After all, fast food really is very

familiar things like hamburgers in slightly different forms.” Elizabeth Bright-See agrees: “Fast doesn’t have to contribute to poor eating habits,” she notes. Even Abram Hoffer sees hope for a fast-food-addicted society. “I think as general knowledge about nutrition increases, fast-food chains will improve their products,” he says. “It’s already beginning. Some chains have put in salad bars.”

Misconceptions over the bean sprout versus the Big Mac illustrate the confusion that currently exists in the field of nutrition. “You must remember it’s really an infant science,” says Nancy Schwartz. Some 18 Canadian colleges and universities now have nutrition programs, many instituted in the past few years. Still, for every qualified nutritionist such as Toronto’s Beth Duviner (see box page 56 ), there are at least as many rank amateurs dispensing advice over food counters, juice bars and check-out lines. “I’m afraid there are a lot of people who are practising nutrition without any formal training at all,” notes Schwartz.

Even more confusing, in view of the gloom and doom pronouncements of some food faddists, statistics indicate that, on average, Canadians have markedly improved certain aspects of their diet. Canadian super market sale s of sugar have declined nearly five pounds per capita since 1967 to 93 pounds and consumption of high-cholesterol dairy products has also fallen. Meantime, consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables has risen. Dominion Stores Director of Consumer Affairs Vizma Lefresne reports that sales of such products as high-fibre cereals, touted as a preventive measure against cancer of the colon, have mushroomed in the past five years. And at Harrowsmith, a burgeoning, three-year-old back-to-theland magazine headquartered in Camden East, Ontario, food editor Jennifer Bennett claims instructions for such things as grinding grain to make bread and preparing Japanese soybean cake are among the publication’s most popular requests.

Nonetheless, the over-all picture, as nutritionists such as Duviner point out, gives less than unalloyed cause for optimism. Although meat consumption has dropped slightly, most health experts feel the North American diet is still far too high in cholesterol-laden animal products—which are widely thought to contribute to a number of maladies including heart attacks, cancer and hardening of the arteries. And that old devil obesity remains a serious health problem, with some estimates showing more than half the population medically overweight. Losing the battle of the

bulge, however, involves lack of exercise as much as bad eating habits. “We actually consume fewer calories than our grandparents,” notes Elizabeth BrightSee. “But we also exercise far less than they did. We don’t get up from a heavy lunch to an afternoon of outdoor work.”

The farm-fresh, home-cooked bounty that, at least in legend, was a fixture of grandma’s table, still represents the ideal menu to many people. Yet nutritionists point out that our diet, taken as a whole, represents a vast improvement over the 19th century. “I’d say the diet 100 years ago was really quite bad,” says James Young, a professor at Atlanta, Georgia’s Emory University, who specializes in the history of food. “In fact, it was awful. There was an absence of fresh fruit and vegetables during the winter, and diseases based on dietary deficiencies, such as goitre resulting from a lack of iodine, were common.”

Certainly, the controversial additives and preservatives that many consider the villains of modern-day food marketing are in large part responsible not only for the disappearance of many classic diet-related illnesses but for our present gastronomic bounty as well. It would be difficult to imagine a return to a diet where strawberries appeared only in summer, oranges and grapefruits were tropical exotica and the tender young birds we call spring chickens were available as their name indicates, only in the spring.

No one, of course, advocates adding chemicals, such as some of the appearance-enhancing red dyes, the presence of which may lead to cancer while at the same time having no positive nutritional effects. But specialists point out that without preservatives to enhance shelf life and kill bacterial growth, our ability to feed the 20th century’s massive urban populations adequately would be severely reduced. “There’s no point in saying that we can return to a world without preservatives,” says Jane Hope. “That’s simply an unrealistic view.”

Most nutritionists, in fact, offer a startlingly—almost disappointingly— untrendy prescription for eating right: moderation. “The best advice is simply to eat a balanced diet. Too much of any food or food group can be detrimental,” says nutrition professor Beaton. “Look,” says Michigan State’s Leveille, “even spinach can kill you if that’s all you eat.” With temptation ever-present and potential controversy seasoning every bite, there is still only one totally reliable guide to navigation through the minefields of chemicals, cholesterol and calories—Eat, Drink, and Be Wary.

With files from Patricia King