Content warning: diet/food, health, anxiety, depression
It’s 9am Wednesday, 21 August, 2019. I’m at a professional development session run by someone who is supposed to be teaching me how to be better at doing my day job. I walk into the session and the special guest is a nutritionist.
I work in Quality and Compliance in the Community Services Sector, so I’m a bit perplexed as to how a nutritionist is going to help me do my job, but I’ve paid good money for the session (technically work paid, but the point stands) and I give it the benefit of the doubt.
We start out with a story about her health journey. Her child was sick with asthma, she was feeling crappy and run down, and conventional medicine wasn’t helping so she started looking into diet and (scene missing) cut to now; she’s a qualified nutritionist and both she and her son are magically cured, all through the power of diet. I’m starting to see a small red flag that she’s selling ‘woo‘ but, again, I let it slide.
She goes on to talk about blood sugar regulation, the role of insulin and glucogen in the normal cycle. Fine, this is accepted scientific fact as far as I’m aware. She moves on to dysfunctional blood sugar regulation, where the peaks are too big so the body releases way too much insulin, and then the blood sugar drops way too low and the glucogen isn’t enough so adrenalin gets thrown in to give us emergency energy. So far this is still in the realm of real science.
She goes on to start talking about the difference between food and ‘non-food’ or ‘negative food’ – the stuff that is nutrient poor like refined grains – and how we’re all afraid of fats. She talks about how food can control hormone regulation and inflammation in the body, about gut health. Okay, still with her.
People start asking questions and sharing experiences and I think we’re all still on board. And then someone makes a comment that there’s was a link between autism and diet [insert sound of record scratching]. I look around and no one else seems to have registered that this is a really out there thing to say. So I do nothing.
She starts to talk about how in more traditional/nomadic cultures the people are more robust, how chronic illness doesn’t exist, how if we look at our ancestors, as recently as pre World War II, they don’t have chronic illnesses and dietary intolerances. About how the big food companies are producing convenience foods which are completely lacking in any value as foods.
And I start to realise the small red flag from before has become quite a big red flag while I wasn’t watching. I don’t think my brain had totally processed this at the time, but I was really uncomfortable with the content. I had disengages, and started self-soothing behaviours like checking my phone.
We all go to a break for coffee and I make a comment that I am almost constantly hungry and I suspect it’s because of my medication and someone in the group says, ‘maybe if you change your diet you don’t need the medication.’ This is the point where I lose my shit.
This person doesn’t know this, but I take antidepressants to control my depression and anxiety. I’ve been on and off them since my late teens and I struggle with the idea that I need them, largely because of how our society portrays mental illness. I respond to this person, who I’m sure was just being flippant, that I think it’s dangerous to start telling people they can go off their medication, and that shaming someone for having to take medication is completely inappropriate and then I have to go and have a cry in the toilets.
I try to pull myself together and come back to the group and someone else asks if I’m okay. I say no and that’s it; I’m in full meltdown.
As I’m writing this now I can see more clearly the chain of events that led to the trigger of the full meltdown. I don’t believe for one moment that chronic illnesses or autism or anything else didn’t exist in traditional cultures or in the past. Back in the time when infant mortality was significantly higher, and death in general seemed to be more pervasive I think people with chronic illnesses, digestive troubles, autism and a myriad of other things just died. They weren’t there to record their struggles because they were fucking dead.
I am also sure that the confidence of the speaker, and the apparent belief of the people around me made me feel like I was the odd one out; that I was the crazy one in a room full of sane people.
I’m not one to suggest that our modern diets are perfect, nor that McDonalds and frankenfoods and transfats and GMOs are good for us. But I felt like I’d somehow joined a cult and I was the only one to think there was something funky going on. I didn’t know how to get out and I freaked.
It took me a good twenty minutes of weeping quietly in a cafe to calm myself down. I know that my trauma and my experiences contributed to the way I reacted. I understand that going from fine to blubbering mess is not an ideal way to deal with conflict but I honestly thought I was losing my mind.
I’m questioning whether I can trust this particular training provider in future. I wonder if I can feel safe to attend this sort of professional development in future. I certainly wouldn’t have turned up if I’d known the pseudoscientific scare-mongering I was going to be exposed to. Not to mention the last session had a similar, if much smaller scale, response where I came out of it feeling really defeated and overwhelmed by how much I was doing wrong.
I spoke to my sister and to a friend who is in the extremely scientific/rational camp over the course of the day and I realise now that this nutritionist was in the Pete Evans Activated Almond category of science [read: not science]. I should have known when she said that she had to go to America to find the type of nutrition course she wanted.
Sometimes I forget I live in a bubble, especially when something like this happens. Sometimes I worry about the sort of narratives people are susceptible to. And sometimes I cry at work.