The Magic Realism of a Healthy Diet

Magic Realism is a literary style that explores the seemingly magical effects of commonplace things. Consider, for example, the following scene from One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Marquez. Melquíades is an old gypsy who normally comes to the village once a year with a group of gypsy peddlers who sell wondrous and magical goods and services, such as magnets and magic carpet rides Melquíades looks older than his true age because he has lost his teeth to scurvy. Yet one year, Melquíades shows up with his teeth magically restored. To everyone’s amazement, he can actually take the teeth out of his mouth, along with his gums, making himself look old again. He can put the teeth back in, making himself look young again.

The reader knows that there’s nothing magical about a set of false teeth. However, the villagers have never seen anything like it before. Dentures are outside the scope of their personal experience. Therefore, the transformation produced by a set of dentures seems like magic to them. Similarly, a truly healthy diet is simply outside the scope of personal experience for the average American. As a result, we think that it’s normal for people to get fat and sick in middle age. We think that it’s normal for middle-aged and elderly people to have to take a fistful of prescription medications every day. Thus, the effects of a truly healthy diet might seem magical to us.

A truly healthy diet would represent a radical change from the way that Americans have been taught to eat. When I was in home economics in sixth and seventh grade, I was taught that people are supposed to eat two servings of meat and three servings of dairy products every day. Otherwise, we’d supposedly run a risk of protein and calcium deficiency. Even today, I still see warnings against “fad” diets, which are usually described as diets that “eliminate entire food groups.” Unfortunately, the “experts” who peddle this advice are not experts in nutrition. In contrast, the American Dietetic Association has come out with a position paper that provides support for a purely plant-based diet.

A truly healthy diet for a human being would get less than 10% of its calories from fat and would be based exclusively on high-fiber plant material. It can include plenty of unrefined starches, such as potatoes, rice, or corn. In other words, people really ought to eliminate two of the “basic food groups.” Some people also need to avoid particular plant foods. For example, people with celiac disease can’t eat wheat, rye, or barley.

To see the seemingly magical effects that this radical change in food choices can have on ordinary Americans, look at the “Star McDougallers’” page on Dr. John McDougall’s Web site. Many people show how they’ve managed to reverse supposedly incurable disease simply eliminating two of the basic food groups and cutting way back on fat. It’s not magic. It’s magic realism.

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