Monday, April 17, 2017

Response to SBS article on "Orthorexia"

See article "Orthorexia: When your desire for 'clean eating' turns obsessive"

Posted as a comment, and unexpectedly it became an essay, processing thoughts I've had over the last few years regarding diets undertaken to address particular medical conditions.

A related issue to obsessive consequences of "clean eating" is that certain diets for particular health conditions are extremely difficult to undertake rigorously, sometimes requiring careful control of variables, and causing significant side effects that can temporarily derail work and family commitments.

A large proportion of people who begin difficult diets will drop out because of the sheer effort of adhering to them properly. See for example, this 2012 article, "Long-term dietary intervention trials: critical issues and challenges."

I was very lucky that my worst health problems arose at a time when I was writing a thesis so I did not have a strict employment schedule, I was able to experiment with diet based treatments, undertaking them methodically and staying in bed when I was wiped out by them.

In particular, undertaking a low carbohydrate diet such as the specific carbohydrate diet (SCD), for inflammatory bowel disease, or the Low FODMAP diet for fructose malabsorption, or detecting a food intolerance through the elimination diet, will certainly cause several days of exhaustion due to bacterial die-off (Herxheimer reaction). [I have experienced this with all three].

As a result, and sometimes as a result of inadequate nutrition, I have occasionally experienced excessive weight loss and worry from family members, despite their overall positive lessons for me, leading me to reduce my inflammation levels: I am now able to control my symptoms mostly without drugs.

Our families [and perhaps employers] should understand that they need to give the right kind of critical support to our efforts to understand our food intolerances and the dietary aspect of our medical conditions. Many people are frustrated in their messy attempts to know their own food needs in ways that may yield long term benefits to their health, especially since the science behind some of these diets is underdeveloped.

We need to distinguish between obsessive behaviour that requires intervention, and the valid careful and dedicated adherence to a particular diet until it yields results.

However the difficult truth is that sometimes there is a fine line between the two because when we are trying to find a food culprit for our symptoms we can become invested in our particular hunches, and become almost superstitious, noticing every negative symptom or mood swing and demonising particular foods as causing it when they in fact have not.

To reduce this confusion and worry from family members, I undertook the low FODMAP diet with a dietician's supervision. Part of the reason was that it had more peer reviewed studies backing it up than SCD for example -although SCD now has some peer reviewed support - see here.

Yet I do not think that Low FODMAP was necessarily more effective for my situation. While I have benefited from excluding wheat from my diet for 15 years, suggesting the validity of the category of "wheat fructans," the category Polyols including mannitol that mushrooms are part of in the FODMAP framework does not seem to be an issue for me: I can happily eat sweet potato and sweet peas, yet I cannot eat mushrooms or chewing gum sweetened with mannitol. I have now excluded mushrooms and chewing gum permanently, reducing my headaches, digestive distress and exhaustion.

Working with the dietician did however help me in being more rigorous, keeping a more methodical food diary and also being less absolutist in my adoption of some aspects of the diet.

I also later found that some other foods cause problems for me. Legume-based additives such as guar gum and carragenan cause terrible side effects for me, while lupini beans and lupin flour make me sick. Perhaps this is due to particular plant chemicals that function as defences against herbivory, with some legumes having higher concentrations because they do not have long histories of domestication that other legumes such as lentils (which are fine for me) have. Some emulsifiers as well as brewers and bakers yeast also cause problems for me.

None of these diets has in itself produced the magic cure I was after, yet each has taught me something new that I have carried forward that has benefited my health greatly. Each has also taught me to be attentive through practicing a food diary.

The trouble with the diagnosis of “orthorexia” nervosa is that is can lead doctors and other authority figures up the familiar path of psychologising , of saying “it’s all in your mind,” which today we have a name for: gaslighting.

Now as we are in the revolution of the microbiome, we simply cannot say "it's all in your mind" anymore. As neurology has given us the extended model of the brain, and shown how mind and body are connected, we no longer accept reductive explanation, and the medical practitioner has to at least admit that they do not know the extent to which food is part of our maladies of chronic disease, and that they cannot moralise about healthy eating when what is healthy for one person may not be healthy for another.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Why support light rail and the electrification of transport.

If we want to address climate change with the seriousness it deserves, we should electrify transport. The ACT Light rail project shows leadership in this direction: it will be Australia's first zero-pollution public transport system.

In a recent article in Vox, “The Key to Tackling Climate Change: Electrify Everything,” David Roberts cites a growing expert consensus on what is called “environmentally beneficial electrification.” He says that there is a two-pronged strategy for deep decarbonisation:

1. Clean up electricity

2. Electrify everything.

The ACT is well on the way to doing (1). It is leading Australia in the effort to decarbonise the electricity supply, with a goal of 100% renewable energy by 2020. We know how to do this. What we don’t know how to do is how to decarbonise engine fuel. You can buy offsets, which have problems in themselves, but you can’t make the fuel itself greenhouse-friendly. Even if you make biodiesel from the waste oil from takeaway fish and chip shops, you are still emitting CO2 and other nasties.

If you electrify transport, the job of reducing greenhouse gas emissions for transport is much easier: you can plug into the 100% renewable energy of the ACT grid by 2020, and you immediately decarbonise a considerable part of Canberra’s carbon footprint, in one of the most car-dependent cities in Australia, making the new ACT light rail line Australia’s first zero pollution, zero carbon emissions public transport system.

The Paris Declaration on Electro-Mobility and Climate Change states that "Limiting the global temperature increase to below 2 degrees Celsius requires changing this transport emissions trajectory, which involves the development of an integrated electro- mobility ecosystem encompassing various transport modes, coupled with the low-carbon production of electricity and hydrogen, implemented in conjunction with broader sustainable transport principles."

Currently Australia's transport emissions trajectory is not reducing at the pace needed for a safe climate. Transport in Australia emits 16 per cent of Australia's polluting greenhouse gases per year, over 90 Megatons. Diesel vehicles- such as conventional buses, trucks and 4WDs - are the fastest growing fuel type for all vehicles in Australia. Yet diesel fumes emit CO2 and CO, and have the added problem of being a Group 1 carcinogen according to the World Health Organisation.

There have been many promising developments in electric bus technology that are prompting rapid adoption of this mode of transit due to vast fuel savings over the lifetime of the bus. The Greens policy to transition ACT's bus fleet to 100% electric is a good step in the right direction. Internal combustion engines are less than 30% efficient. Add to that the energy cost of transporting fuel from the other side of the world.

Yet buses do not have the transformative network effects that light rail has. Light rail has become the "backbone" of systems such as on the Gold Coast and Glenelg extension (SA), where in both cases there was much scepticism before their construction. Light rail attracts more people out of their cars than buses: there is a section of the population that simply will not use buses whereas they will happily use rail modes of transit.

Energy is also lost from friction between rubber tyres and the road. It's smoother and more efficient to have tracks connecting steel and steel. This is why many people find rail-based journeys more comfortable and preferable to road-based transport, especially if they spend their commutes reading or working on handheld devices or a computer.

While some have argued that to address environmental concerns, Canberra should focus on improving cycling infrastructure, my experience riding my bike each day to work gives a strong hunch that this is necessary but not sufficient: for most people cycling is not an all-weather mode of transport: less than half my colleagues who cycled did so during the Winter. Furthermore, cycling is less inclusive than light rail for elders, disabled people and young children.

I am very proud to have been part of community campaigns in Canberra for the ambitious climate change targets that it has today. The ACT has shown what a pathway to renewable energy looks like that doesn't break the bank, being the only jurisdiction in Australia where electricity prices decreased by an average of $80 per household in 2015. These targets dovetail very well with an ambitious public transport policy of light rail that both Labor and the Greens have adopted, which several environmental groups advocated for.

In 2008, the Conservation Council of the ACT advocated for light rail for the ACT election, commissioning an animation of what a light rail journey down Northbourne Avenue would look like. I helped build a 3 metre-long light rail model, which members of Climate Action Canberra would carry above our heads and take to climate change protests in 2008-10. We would get many appreciative honks from passing motorists as we walked down the median strip towards Parliament House, prefiguring a future in which light rail formed a backbone of Canberra as Walter Burley Griffin intended.

We are now much closer to that future than we have ever been for a very long time, and I hope people register the significance of what the ACT government is doing. Canberra will be the first in Australia to have 100% renewable-powered public transport, showing other cities a pathway out of their smog: it is clear that electrification holds a similar kind of promise of a brighter future as it did for my grandparents’ generation.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Meeting my local federal member about the Trans Pacific Partnership

Meeting with politicians in my opinion is a bit like debating. In moderation, it's worth doing because it sharpens up your thinking and communication skills, refreshing your understanding of an issue. Yet if you do it too much you can come to accept the internal assumptions of the activity, encouraging you to become more scheming in your methods and beliefs about people, thinking that the instrumental goal of moving people's position is more important than anything else.

It's been over ten years since I've seriously sat down and scrutinised /campaigned against free trade agreements, so preparing for this meeting revived some of the old passion. I was reminded of the importance of educating and mobilising the public and holding politicians to account on these extremely important issues. Hopefully this blog post explains a little of what I learned when I did a bit of research for the meeting.

Julie Owens, Labor member for Parramatta and my local member is a very approachable person, and someone who is less of a hack than many politicians.

As a former spokesperson for the independent record industry she also is familiar with the issues surrounding copyright laws and the impact that demands to extend copyright can have on creativity and innovation (such as those in the US Free Trade Agreement which allowed drug companies to extend patents to 25 years, increasing the cost of drugs shouldered by the Australian government pharmaceutical benefits scheme by delaying generics manufacturing).

Owens expressed considerable concern about the investor-state provisions in the TPP. She said that after the election Labor will be reviewing Australia's participation in all trade agreements that include investor-state provisions. [I find this surprising as the tone of Penny Wong's media statements on trade agreements tend to be upbeat in relation to trade agreements, endorsing their broad intention, giving an impression that she thinks they are generally good and only need minor tweaking around the edges. Also I wonder about the exit clauses of these agreements and whether there are penalties for exiting]

This is great to hear but it also reveals a weakness in Australian campaigns against the multilateral and bilateral trade agreements: they have been lopsided in focusing critical analysis on the danger of corporations suing governments (investor-state dispute provisions), to the detriment of broader analysis of the agenda of these trade agreements since the 1990s, which is about tying governments' hands fiscally and politically from initiating broad reaching policies that seek to limit, direct or restrict the activities of corporations, or to preference the local scale or to government-owned industries in procurement or similar government decisions.

While Australians rightly celebrate the successful defence of Australia's plain packaging tobacco laws after a challenge brought by Hong Kong via investor-state provisions from a bilateral 1993 Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement, the win was obtained at great cost to the Australian citizen, engaging a small army of lawyers, and may still cause a "chilling effect" in which policy makers may think twice before implementing legislation which for example limits the power of the sugar industry over advertising or dietary guidelines. Furthermore, this victory - while an important symbol as Australia's first in investor-state disputes- appears to be a drop in the ocean in the broader scene of trade disputes.

The more common enforcement mechanism in trade agreements is a tribunal in which governments make a complaint about another government's laws.

There are four other countries that have similar complaints in the works against Australian plain packaging legislation via state-state disputes processes: As Croakey reports: "Currently Australia is facing disputes by Honduras, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Indonesia over tobacco plain packaging, using the state-to-state dispute settlement mechanism of the World Trade Organization." Australian citizens will again have to shoulder the legal cost for this defence.

The US Trade Department has a large section entirely devoted to initiating international disputes on behalf of their corporations.

In February the US won a dispute versus India on solar panel manufacturing, that will potentially cost the Indian solar industry US $100 billion, and will cost the Indian people jobs which are being generated on the back of a Domestic Content Requirement that requires the solar panels to be in part manufactured in India.

India currently has a similar installed amount of solar capacity to Australia: almost 5000 MW, and is rapidly expanding capacity as part of their "Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission" policy: Their ambitious 2022 target (decided in 2009) was previously 20000 MW, but now they have supercharged this target, aiming for 100 000 MW (or 20 times the current installed capacity) by 2022.

We can see in examples such as this ways in which the goal of addressing climate change in a way that prioritises generating local jobs can conflict fundamentally with international trade agreements. Thus movements seeking transformative change in solving climate change or other deep-rooted social issues must prioritise also analysis and mobilisation against international trade agreements in order to pursue their goals.


[I also heard from a friend yesterday that recently leaked information about the TPP suggests that the disputes mechanism will apply retrospectively to any legislation- not just new laws- I haven't had the time to check up on this.]

** At the end of the meeting, Julie Owens agreed to come along to an election forum on June 14, 7pm at the Commercial Hotel in Parramatta.**

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Affordable public transport to Sydney Airport

A Melbourne friend recently asked me how to get to and from Sydney airport cheaply by public transport. If you don't mind a ten minute walk, there are regular bus services along Botany Road to Redfern, where you can easily transfer to trains to other parts of Sydney. Botany Road is located to the East of the Domestic Terminal, and as long as you walk towards the East (preferably NE), you will hit it, then you can catch a bus heading North to Redfern:
Here is google maps
Preferably buy an Opal Card beforehand, which you can usually purchase at convenience stores and news agents.
Catch the 309 or 310 or the Metrobus M20 (M20 ends up on the Pacific Highway, North Shore via the city, and as it is limited stops you need to go to the bus stop at the intersection with Elizabeth Avenue for this one- only catch this one if you have an Opal Card).
These buses are very regular.
Timetable for 309, 310:
Timetable for M20:
Please download the most up to date version here
Make sure you ask the bus driver to let you out at either Redfern or Central. In both cases, you will be located East of the train line so you can find the station by walking West.
You can also catch the 400 from Burwood, which arrives directly at the airport, better for disabled people, but it takes much longer.
Happy travels.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Speech from last year's earth hour

The speech I gave in Parramatta for Earth Hour 2014 is relevant to our upcoming walk for water, and is  only partially available now on the ParraCAN website, so here are the words in full. And the flyer we handed out along Church street, being received with excited engagement by kids and parents alike, many of whom had just been at the Eels game.

I'm going to talk about the Parramatta eels. I'm going to tell you about the journey of the eel and how that is affected by climate change.

I think eels are a powerful symbol of our region- people identify strongly with the football team which is playing tonight- I believe that the score was 12-8 last time I checked- Parramatta is winning against Penrith. Later on this evening, we're going to walk down Church St with lanterns and give out flyers about the situation of the Parramatta Eels and try to engage a bit with people about that. You're welcome to come and walk with us.

Eels also are the reason for this place. "Parramatta" means "Where the eels lie down in the Dharug language. The eels lie down in the upper reaches of the Parramatta River and Lake Parramatta where they quietly rest amid the rocks and reeds during the hotter part of the day- and are more active in the night.

Who here has seen an eel - a real eel- near Parramatta?

Local Dharug artist Leanne Tobin tells us that:

"This place [Parramatta] is where the river meets the saltwater. It’s a place where the adult eels following their age-old cycle, lying down in wait for the full moon, fat and ready for their epic journey up to the Coral Sea to spawn. Their young then return eventually back to the rivers of their forebears to continue the circle of life. For the people living around the banks of the river it was a time of great feasting and clans traveled from far away to share the eels. Corroborees and song of the different clans celebrating together could be heard along the sandy river banks".

Long finned eels in Sydney reproduce once in their lives-at their life's end. The journey they take to breed in the Coral Sea is quite incredible. When Autumn arrives and when conditions are right - nice and rainy like the last few days, eels leave their  watery homes -dams and ponds - where they have lived for a few decades- and travel through densely populated suburbs and across the Golf Courses, even down big Dam walls, they slip into the brackish water of Parramatta River, and then into the salt water of the harbour and the open ocean. As the long-finned eels get closer to Sydney harbour, their gills change in preparation for saltwater and their eyes increase in size.

From there they undertake a 2000-kilometre swim to New Caledonia. The eels breed in deep tropical waters in the Coral Sea, with females laying up to 20 million eggs. Then the exhausted adult eels die once they have spawned their offspring. When the eggs hatch they begin to float south on ocean currents. Driven by instinct, the baby eels go right back to the exact place their parents used to live- so these lakes are literally 'ancestral homes'. European settlement has put some obstacles in their way, but they still find their way, even slithering their way up the wall of the Warragamba Dam. They swim back up the Parramatta River, across the golf courses, through the drainpipes, across backyards and then into permanent water sources to live for a few decades and start the cycle again.

In some parts of Australia- such as near Melbourne, researchers have verified that Aboriginal people farmed the eels through an extensive aquaculture system. It's possible that this could have taken place in Parramatta.

So why might we care about climate change with the eels of Parramatta?

Research has found that baby eels migrating upstream show a preference for mild water temperatures between 12 and 20C,  Water temperatures above and below these levels  almost completely stop migration, thus warmer temperatures associated with global climate change could have a detrimental impact on baby eels. The sea is also becoming more acidic as it dissolves more Carbon Dioxide, so we need to be concerned about the entire marine food web. The calcium skeletons of shellfish and other sea life  break down in acid conditions. Combined with the issue coral bleaching, tropical marine ecosystems are becoming very vulnerable.

So what can you do to protect the reef?
-We are demonstrating our concern this Earth Hour by walking through Parramatta CBD

-You can become more aware of where the eels migrate in your local area. What are the permanent sources of water. What are their food sources? How many eels do you think are there?

-You can advocate for improving the water quality of lakes and dams in this area, so that more eels thrive there. There are many ways we can particularly encourage greenskeepers to shift to more sustainable and less chemical intensive methods of caring for golf courses and other sports grounds. I can tell you about these if you are interested.

-You can join Parracan and work to address the causes of climate change, which is our continued reliance on outdated fossil fuel technologies, and speed up modern renewable energy technologies.

Campaign groups such as ParraCAN work to encourage our political leaders to speed up the shift to a low fossil carbon future. It's sometimes a thrilling and challenging journey to learn about these issues in a community group like Parracan. Almost as thrilling as following the journey of the Parramatta Eels.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Posting after a hiatus of 7 years: on gluten!

Digesting and contesting the concept of gluten

This month there has been a flurry of commentary on gluten. The Facebook group Food Inc. on 7 May posted an article on what many see as the 'gluten free fad'. I thought about it for a while. It is of a recent episode of an American comedy show hosted by Jimmy Kimmel which canvassed vox pops of health-conscious LA residents, asking them if they eat a gluten free diet. When they each answer in the affirmative, the interviewer asks "what is gluten"? They each go on a few tangents about grains, but do not directly answer the question, failing to satisfy the standards of Kimmel and his giggling studio audience. More recently on 27 May in the Sydney Morning Herald, Sarah Berry covered some of the scientific debate on whether gluten intolerance is in fact FODMAP intolerance.

I sympathise with these jogging, vague health enthusiasts, in a similar way that I sympathise with anyone bumbling their way through the world and trying to listen to their bodies adequately and form convictions based on gut feelings (in my case, literally). Unlike some of the people on the video, I can tell you that gluten is a protein that seems to react with many peoples' immune system - but I don't believe this technical understanding alone validates my use the concept. I think knowledge of one's body is valid in its own right. 

I have avoided wheat for 12 years, and now I avoid more than that. Back then I was constantly fatigued, and felt less tired than usual after eating a lunch of rye bread and vegetables, and my friend Dom who had prepared lunch suggested I try eliminating wheat. This helped, but many other problems persisted. After being diagnosed with Crohn's disease last year, I avoid many FODMAPS- forms of carbohydrate that apparently ferment in my inflamed small intestine. This diet is based on peer reviewed evidence from Sue Shepherd of Monash University. [Update, after working with the dietician, I have reintroduced most FODMAP groups into my diet, and mainly avoid wheat fructans and mannitol (mushrooms), eating other groups such as beans/ galactans in moderation, taking lots of probiotics such as home made sauerkraut, home made SCD yogurt, home made fermented buckwheat pancakes, spelt sourdough, anti-inflammatories such as turmeric, apple cider vinegar, green leaves, gelatine and chicken bone/ cartilage broth].

While my current belief about what is going on in my body is supported by my dietician, my GP and my gastroenterologist, I haven't always had supportive doctors, and I've had plenty of sceptical friends and acquaintances. My current understanding is that the thing that is reacting with my small intestine is not gluten, but wheat fructans which along with some other forms of fructose, galactose and other sugars that my body cannot digest. But it is much easier to say to people "I eat gluten free" because now there is an awareness in broader society- particularly in restaurants, of what gluten is, so long-winded explanations about wheat flour are no longer as effective as asking whether a food is gluten free. 

Lampooning adherents of Gluten free diets has certainly stirred the hornet's nest. One comment on a similar meme on the “I fucking love science” Facebook page says "And all the hippy earth children revolt. Comedy". Another comment on the Jimmy Kimmel link posted to the Food Inc Facebook page makes an analogy between gluten and smoking: 

"Gluten affects more than celiacs. Good for those people for not eating it, who cares why they are doing it. I don't smoke for health reasons but I can't name you the hundreds of chemicals in it, nor even 1! If you want to be healthy eat fruits and vegetables, lots of them!"

This person argues that people don't need to know the intricacies of the science behind a principle in order to follow it: we don't know all the chemicals in cigarettes, so why would that disqualify any convictions we might have about the problems with smoking? 

As a proxy for a whole range of different concerns that arise from wheat and grain-based food problems, 'gluten' is a simplification. We tend to reason according to models of identity and causality that are simpler than the real thing. The concept is what Bruno Latour might call 'a black box'. Sometimes, black boxes are necessary for strategic reasons- as heuristic (educational) devices, to create clean edges and a general shape of a scientific concept where there is a lot of internal debate. But sometimes they should be broken open and science should be debated. 

Latour argues in his book Pandora's Hope that processes of scientific deliberation should be broken open by the public to see the contestations within- and to even participate in that contestation where they have something to say. This is one of the ways we can encourage people to see the vitality of science and the importance of the interactive processes of testing hypotheses and generalisations from evidence. As his allusion to Pandora's Box suggests, there is danger in exposing scientific contestation to the public, but ultimately we are all better off for it, as such contestation can assist in encouraging the general public to gain critical thinking skills in learning about and participating in the scientific process.

The reality is that scientific concepts such as 'gluten' travel into popular use and popular currency when they are successful. Since science serves as a midwife to the birth of new ideas in society, new words are created through the interaction between science and the resources and limits of our current language. Scientists do their best to nominate gatekeepers to regulate the use of scientific concepts, and make sure there are not the same problems of fuzziness, of figurative and colloquial use, that marks the dynamism of most natural language. While I accept that some people illegitimately use scientific language, to make themselves seem smart- and need to sometimes be quizzed and taken down, and that spokespeople of the alternative health communities often speak with too much confidence and authority over science, and overstep their expertise in doing so, it is impossible to keep the vocabulary of science pure from influences of the outside world, and to stop ordinary people using scientific concepts such as 'Gluten'  for their own ends, their own experimentation.  Scientific language cannot be easily protected from general use. Science is a social realm. All such realms are creative, and generate new language, words that are then adapted and used to facilitate fluency and sense-making in other spheres of human life. 

The connection between cause and effect for the problems of complex biological communities such as human bodies is rarely simple to definitively trace, unless the problem is caused by a single pathogen (then subsequent detection of pathogens through microscopic examination is adequate): it is nearly always mediated by the interpretation of seemingly conflicting signals- and often- especially with autoimmune conditions, the problems vary from person to person. To interpret these signals according to scientific standards, we would need to become experts in human biology - particularly microbiology, and read peer-reviewed journals (which often require special access through institutions), practice properly designed dietary experiments on sufferers of similar conditions, as well as weigh up of the various possible contributions of different causal factors. In tracing the effects of diet, our experience of causality is not a simple deductive exercise. We often act on the basis of incomplete information, hunches, yes, trends, and tentative hypotheses. But even if our embodied information is not strictly systematised, it can get pretty close to that. Veteran marathon runner Robert De Castella- who has advocated for grain-free diets, and has run a grain-free bread chain Deeks in Canberra for many years, may not qualify as a scientist, but his embodied knowledge of sports nutrition and what his body needs for optimum performance would be among the most detailed of Australian athletes.  I would like to emphasise the particularity of embodied knowledge, and the difficulty in particular of understanding autoimmune conditions. 

I think that scientists should not be too protective about an exclusive access to testing evidence, to innovation, even to knowledge breakthroughs in the area of diet and health problems. Scientists can't control the growth of experimental alternative diet communities. There is a necessary feedback process where scientists can gently clarify and comment on popular use. That feedback process will only be successful if there is mutual respect with ordinary people who take risks in trying to grapple with scientific concepts in relation to their own embodied understandings.  Both information and experience- properly integrated- are able to inform understanding. This is best developed within an open-ended, experimental approach to the world that some call praxis, that can be cultivated in cultures and institutions. 

There are now millions of citizen-learners, guinea pigs or dabblers, who are undergoing some version of the gluten free, paleo, low FODMAP, Specific Carbohydrate, elimination or 'clean eating' diets, who are sharing their results with friends, yes at their yoga classes- it's true, in hair salons, or on the internet, perhaps not in the most rigorous or systematic ways, but they are making generalisations from real experience. There are also numerous people with chronic disease experimenting with probiotics, with faecal transplants, with other treatments for diseases such as Crohn's disease, sometimes furthering science in the process. They need to know the risks of these self-experiments and make decision in full understanding of those risks, with information about peer reviewed evidence-based diets and treatments. However, by ridiculing those who can't explain what gluten is scientifically, and demanding a form of logical justification in the form of correct scientific knowledge, those quizzing joggers on gluten and the joggers' critics such as Kimmel deny the distinctness and validity of the embodied knowledge of interpreting our bodies and the world. Such sceptics hear a technical scientific word such as 'gluten' or 'carbon', and put on their 'belligerent hat': they fire questions at the person using it, demanding that the person have a detailed and expert scientific understanding. I think such an attitude is unfair in the case of carbon, and it is unfair and misplaced in the case of gluten.  

Of course some 'fad dieters' treat their bodies poorly- as many diets practiced by body-loathing people can do, while others practicing the elimination diet occasionally risk malnutrition. But in the vast majority of cases, people attempt such diets out of concern for their wellbeing- a 'trial and error' attempt to improve the quality of their lives, and in many ways out of frustration that their ailments have not been adequately addressed by the medical profession. Many I have informally spoken to, who like me, altered their diets to gluten free, came from a place of pain and confusion about why their body is acting the way it is. Whether it is the pain of obesity, of foggy headedness, of stomach cramps, these are problems that are modern problems, and it is an important task to examine the factors that contribute to such immense losses in the health and wellbeing of so many people, and it's important to recognise the genuine efforts, sincerity and knowledge of the people involved.

Scientific standards are often not enough: doctors need to become better listeners and more patient at following up possible leads, and the general public needs to become more tolerant of popular dietary experimentation. In my opinion we need to bring together the subjective and the objective: the experience of people with health problems, as well as the systematic evidence generated through medical research. There are numerous stories of doctors who suddenly gain a new fervour or a new perspective on understanding disease once they are afflicted by this disease. I believe the medical profession has been unreasonably complacent as well as patronising in its relationship with sufferers of chronic autoimmune conditions who have taken it upon themselves to try dietary methods of dealing with their disease. I think there is a related scepticism in the public with regard to the concept 'gluten free' - and embodied knowledge is discounted in the name of science.

So the status of embodied knowledge seems to be at stake in these controversies. I have thought of a few related questions that I can't answer here, but I feel are live in this discussion:

1. How can doctors and broader society recognise the work of patients or health enthusiasts in learning about their bodies and experimenting with dietary interventions? 

2. How can doctors and science-minded people encourage such dieters to be better citizen-scientists, while listening to their voices including both systematically and non systematically compiled information?

3. What is the standing of embodied knowledge especially on health? What kind of recognition is possible and what validity can be ascribed to the informal knowledge of patients and health enthusiasts?

Thanks to all who have helped give pointers on my dietary journey, particularly Mika Lodsman, Charlie Wood, Maureen Fitzhenry, Simon Dougherty, Jane Matheson, Chris Wiseman.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Here are some photos from the last few weeks:

at the environment collective cake stall at sydney university:

In the SRC: