Six scary words

There are six words which, when uttered by a female of the species, strike me motionless with terror. They are, “I’ve been to see a nutritionist.”

Not that I have anything against nutritionists, per se. A friend of mine is studying to be one, and she is smart and determined and pretty darn savvy. I’m sure she will not let the side (mine) down. And having partaken of  so-called “alternative health care” (in other words, the stuff that isn’t covered on your workplace health plan, should you be lucky enough to have one) over the years — chiropractors, massage therapists, psychotherapists who aren’t medical doctors — I have plenty of good to say about them. Generally speaking, they have skilfully addressed my various aches, pains and whinges — mental and physical — with methods that don’t involve scalpels or narcotics (although these are useful for things like, say, a torn knee ligament). And for this I am thankful.

But why, oh why, is it that when a female goes to a nutritionist, for whatever innocent reason — fatigue, period-related issues, sore muscles, sucking chest wounds — she generally comes away with a laundry list of “allergies” and sensitivities, and a list of “must-not-eat” food items that  make The Boy in the Plastic Bubble look like an overblown case of hay fever?

And why is it always the same list of culprits?

“I’ve been to see a nutritionist,” the Female will say, smiling in an excited, brave sort of way.

“Oh really?” I will reply, bracing myself.

“Yes, and I found out that I’m allergic to –”

“Let me guess,” I say helpfully. “Wheat, dairy, eggs, nuts, soy, sugar, citrus, caffeine and alcohol?”

“Oh my god,” the Female will say, clutching her Laundry List to her chest. “How did you know?”

“Just a hunch,” I will say, coughing demurely and wondering to myself how someone who is supposedly allergic to everything Nature presents to us as a comestible substance is not, frankly, on life support or listening dimly as the Last Rites are read over her failing form.

Incredibly, it seems some specialists have been able to make these mind-blowing diagnoses not through extensive medical tests but simply through having the Female fill out a form, ticking off boxes indicating whether she has “ever” suffered from, say, fatigue, upset stomach, mental “fuzziness” or a runny nose. (In which case, I’m a goner, as is anyone who’s ever had a hangover, eaten a bad clam or pulled an all-nighter while studying for an exam. Or been an infant, for that matter.)

Even more incredibly, one diagnostic method of choice, which I’m desperately hoping has gone the way of the Edsel, was to place samples of the suspected allergens (wheat, eggs, etc etc) in glass bottles and have the Female hold each one in turn at arm’s length. If the specialist was able to push the Female’s arm down, that indicated a weakness in the system and therefore an allergy to whatever substance was in the bottle. (What does “common sense” look like when it’s in a bottle? Never mind.) Mother of God.

As I said, I am hoping against hope that this sort of quackery (and the gullibility that sustains it) has died a quiet death, but I suspect not. I have been on a quest, recently, to drop a few pounds myself and regain a bit of the robustness I have lost since an accident last year, and the handful of “health” books I have read (tick-boxes and all) assure me that quackery, puffery and the wholesale selling of (allergen-free) snake oil are alive and well.

For me, the Klieg lights of nutritional skepticism came on with a bang about fifteen years ago when I was friends (note the use of the past tense here) with a woman I’ll call Stacy. One balmy August Saturday evening, I had invited her over for dinner. I had just returned from another friend’s farm, laden with bounty from her garden: tomatoes, zucchinis, eggplant, herbs. Licking my chops, I spent the afternoon preparing a hearty ratatouille that would make Lucy Waverman sit up & beg. I had also acquired a nice bottle of red wine, a delicious whole-grain baguette, some fresh-churned butter, a chunk of ripe brie and two slices of chocolate tart for our dessert. Breathless with anticipation, I waited for my lucky  guest to arrive.

At the appointed hour, Stacy did just that, and I greeted her like June Cleaver on Ecstasy, smiling and smoothing my apron. The house smelled heavenly, if I do say so myself, but my guest wrinkled her brow and hesitated for a nanosecond just inside the door as if she’d smelled doody. Undaunted (a failing of mine) I led the way majestically into the kitchen and with a sweep of my arm, demonstrated the bubbling pot of ratatouille and the bounty that was to be, arrayed upon the countertops in all its glory.

“Oh,” said Stacy. “I should have told you…”

My heart skipped a beat. The June Cleaver smile wavered just a bit. Surely my guest was not pregnant, unable to partake of the delicious Cabernet Sauvignon breathing discreetly on the table. Ah well, if so, then so be it.

But no. “I’ve been to see a nutritionist.”

The smile wavered again, dimming by several dozen watts. “Oh?” I enquired uneasily.

“Yes,” she said. “I found out I’m allergic to wheat, dairy, eggs, nuts, soy, sugar, citrus, caffeine and alcohol. Oh, and tomatoes.” She smiled and at least had the good grace to blush and look foolish.

“Really,” I said in a chilly sort of way, the remains of my smile vanishing like a fart in a mitten.

“I guess I should have told you,” she said again.

“I guess you should have,” I said.

There was not much more to say, and those of you who know me will be surprised that for such a chatty person, my vocabulary at times of Etiquette-related Stress and Possible Personal Insult is not all it could be. I do not think quickly on my feet, and I find it oddly difficult, at times, to transform thoughts into actions.

This is just as well, for my thoughts at this particular time involved pushing Stacy down a long, steep flight of steps. I do have a dim memory of her standing on a chair beside my cupboard and getting a can of tuna for herself. I believe she may have savoured a glass of tap water, and possibly an apple. I never saw her again.

Years before that, I knew another woman who became obsessed with something called “food combining” as recommended by Harvey and Marilyn Diamond in their book, “Fit for Life.” By “Fit” I’m sure they didn’t mean “seizure,” although I’m sure that’s what would happen to most people if they followed this diet. Starvation and anxiety and an over-concentration on food will do that to a person.

According to the Diamonds (the missus of whom looks suspiciously like Karen Carpenter just before she drifted off this mortal coil, bless her poor heart), one is never supposed to eat proteins or carbs together, so kiss that tuna sandwich goodbye, and have fun with your steak, sans baked potato (or anything else of interest). There are a pant-load of other strictures that for reasons of brevity and accuracy I will not touch here, but the carb-and-protein thing just got up my nose. As did eating at this friend’s house, which increasingly entailed all the joy of picking at a plate of compost. To say the fare was dire is to barely skim the surface of what constitutes gustatory direness; the food was revolting. To this day I cannot look at a recipe calling for quinoa (KEEN-wah for those of you who have been blissfully unaware of this vile substance) without bringing up a bit of my breakfast into my hand.

Anyway, perhaps egged on by starvation and frustration (like the dog in “Shirley Valentine” who goes ballistic after being fed a vegan diet of muesli) I began to pick arguments with my friend, wondering aloud how our cave-dwelling, carb-and-protein-mixing ancestors survived to pass on their genes without the wisdom of the Diamonds to guide them. I believe the final blow was dealt when I enquired whether a carb-based meal would be ruined, passing undigested and un-usable through the system, if even the tiniest molecule of protein got into the mix. I believe my example of the “tiny molecule” in question was “a booger.”

And that was it. I was excused from the table, never to be invited back. It had about it a ring of the times when I was a child and my brother and I, confronted with plates of chicken livers and Swiss chard, would kick each other under the table and hiss, “YOU say it!”, knowing the only way out of having to eat the alleged dinner was to say “Fuck” and be sent to our rooms. It was brilliant.

So what’s my point?, you may well ask. It is simply that if you are a female and feeling a bit peaky, you would probably do well to steer clear of anyone who a) has you fill out a vaguely-worded questionnaire about symptoms that pretty much everyone has, or b) does that thing with the jars, and then c) tells you to toss the contents of your fridge and your pantry, buy a whole pile of new foods and supplements you can’t pronounce (some of which they, of course, handily sell themselves) and begin life anew as the kind of person that no one wants to eat with, ever. Food allergies and life-altering medical conditions are way too serious and complex to be diagnosed and summarily treated in one go by someone who wants to sell you supplements. I’m not saying the more traditional medical professionals don’t make  mistakes too (at the time I write this, a hospital in Windsor is investigating a bunch of mastectomies done in error!). But at the very least, get a second opinion before you put on a whole new identity and make sweeping changes to your life — and the lives of those around you.

And for god’s sake, if you DO get a Laundry List, however large (and I mean this in the nicest possible way) just give me some warning before I invite you to dinner. I’m a good cook; don’t make me hurt you.

With props to magnet goddess Anne Taintor (http://annetaintor.com)

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