Adelle Davis

Adelle Davis, circa 1925

Adelle Davis was the most pop­u­lar and influ­en­tial writer on food and nutri­tion in the Unit­ed States from the 1950s through the 1970s. Yet many nutri­tion experts con­sid­ered her to be a dan­ger­ous source of false infor­ma­tion. This is sur­pris­ing, con­sid­er­ing how close­ly most of her advice adhered to the stan­dard “Four Food Groups” being pro­mot­ed by the USDA at the time. Yet some of the advice she pro­vid­ed in her books proved to be even more dead­ly than the stan­dard Amer­i­can diet.

Daisie Adelle Davis, born in 1904, was one of the few pop­u­lar writ­ers about nutri­tion to have had any sci­en­tif­ic train­ing in the field. She was trained as a dietit­ian at Belle­vue and Ford­ham Hos­pi­tals in New York City in the late 1920s, and she earned a mas­ter of sci­ence (MS) degree in bio­chem­istry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia in 1939. Despite her edu­ca­tion in sci­ence and nutri­tion, Davis’s pop­u­lar books on nutri­tion were rid­dled with sci­en­tif­ic errors. Although Davis cit­ed 2,402 ref­er­ences as “doc­u­men­ta­tion” in her book Let’s Get Well, many of those ref­er­ences either had noth­ing to do with the sub­ject she was dis­cussing or flat­ly con­tra­dict­ed the argu­ments she was making.[1] Experts whose work she cit­ed in the book com­plained that they had been mis­quot­ed or their state­ments tak­en out of con­text. Some of the mis­in­for­ma­tion and bad advice in Davis’s books proved dead­ly, even to her­self.

At least one death,[2] and one near miss,[3] occurred in babies who had been giv­en large dos­es of potas­si­um, because of bad advice that Davis gave in Let’s Have Healthy Chil­dren. Davis had false­ly claimed that “col­ic” in babies is due to potas­si­um defi­cien­cy, which she mis­tak­en­ly said was due to eat­ing too much sodi­um. She false­ly claimed, “most babies need­ed 3,000 mil­ligrams of potas­si­um chlo­ride (2/3 tea­spoon) before col­ic was cor­rect­ed.” Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the arti­cle she cit­ed said noth­ing of the kind.[4] It wasn’t even about col­ic, a term used to describe chil­dren who cry non­stop for hours, often with signs of gas or belly­ache. Instead, the arti­cle was about hos­pi­tal­ized chil­dren who had low potas­si­um lev­els because of severe vom­it­ing and diar­rhea. The arti­cle described dos­es of 1000 to 2000 mil­ligrams being giv­en grad­u­al­ly over 24 hours, not a dose of 3000 mil­ligrams giv­en all at once. Fur­ther­more, the arti­cle specif­i­cal­ly warned that giv­ing potas­si­um to a dehy­drat­ed infant could cause car­diac arrest.[5]

Oth­er chil­dren were seri­ous­ly harmed by Davis’s advice to give chil­dren large dos­es of vit­a­min A. One child who had vit­a­min A over­dose as a result was hos­pi­tal­ized with symp­toms that sug­gest­ed brain tumor. This con­di­tion, called pseudo­tu­mor cere­bri, is a form of brain swelling that can destroy the optic nerves, lead­ing to per­ma­nent blind­ness, or even cause death. Anoth­er child’s growth was per­ma­nent­ly stunt­ed by vit­a­min A over­dos­es after a par­ent took Davis’s advice.

Davis her­self died of breast can­cer in 1974. We know now that the rate of breast can­cer in a pop­u­la­tion is strong­ly tied to the amount of ani­mal pro­tein in the diet.[6] Thus, Davis’s heavy con­sump­tion of raw milk, eggs, and cheese almost cer­tain­ly short­ened her life. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, her books lived on, like land­mines in an aban­doned bat­tle­field, con­tin­u­ing to pro­vide mis­lead­ing and some­times lethal advice about food and nutri­tion.

Davis couldn’t have hon­est­ly claimed that she “didn’t know” about the dan­gers of ani­mal-based foods. By the late 1950s, Nathan Pri­tikin had learned, from read­ing reports of pop­u­la­tion stud­ies, that rich, fat­ty foods from ani­mals cause heart dis­ease, and that heart dis­ease could be cured by remov­ing those foods from the diet. Pri­tikin learned this from his own study of the med­ical lit­er­a­ture. He had no train­ing in dietet­ics or med­i­cine. If Pri­tikin could fig­ure this out, why couldn’t Davis?

This nat­u­ral­ly rais­es a ques­tion. Why did Davis fill her books with “hog­wash” when she had the train­ing and pre­sum­ably the intel­li­gence to cor­rect­ly inter­pret the med­ical jour­nal arti­cles she was sup­pos­ed­ly read­ing? As a dietit­ian, and espe­cial­ly as a human being, didn’t she have an eth­i­cal duty to tell the truth? What could pos­si­bly explain such intel­lec­tu­al dis­hon­esty? Nathan Pri­tikin was will­ing to incur the wrath of car­di­ol­o­gists to tell the Amer­i­can peo­ple the truth about the role of diet in heart dis­ease. Davis wasn’t afraid to face the wrath of the med­ical pro­fes­sion. Why didn’t she do so to tell the truth?

The prob­lem is not lim­it­ed to the works of Adelle Davis. Why are so many nutri­tion books that are sold to the pub­lic filled with such dan­ger­ous hog­wash? Edward H. Ryn­ear­son, MD, who was a retired pro­fes­sor of med­i­cine from the Mayo Clin­ic, wrote an influ­en­tial arti­cle in 1974 claim­ing that “Amer­i­cans love hog­wash,” which he defined as “worth­less, false or ridicu­lous speech or writ­ings.” I don’t think that Amer­i­cans liked Davis’s books because they knew they were “worth­less, false, or ridicu­lous.” They sim­ply had no inde­pen­dent way of eval­u­at­ing them. They want sen­si­ble and prac­ti­cal advice, giv­en in a respect­ful tone. (They would also like to be told that they can eat as much fat­ty food as they want, but that’s anoth­er issue.) The peo­ple who killed or injured their chil­dren by fol­low­ing Davis’s advice had no idea that her books were hog­wash, and no way of find­ing it out before it was too late.

Reference List

  1. Adelle Davis’s books on nutri­tion: Com­men­tary by Edward H. Ryn­ear­son, M.D. Med Insight. 1973;32–34.
  2. Wetli CV, Davis JH. Fatal hyper­kalemia from acci­den­tal over­dose of potas­si­um chlo­ride. JAMA. 1978;240(13):1339.
  3. Oseas RS, Phelps DL, Kaplan SA. Near fatal hyper­kalemia from a dan­ger­ous treat­ment for col­ic. Pedi­atrics. 1982;69(1):117–118.
  4. Potas­si­um metab­o­lism in gas­troen­teri­tis. Nutr Rev. 1956;14(10):295–296.
  5. Bar­rett SB. The Lega­cy of Adelle Davis. Quack­Watch Web site. Avail­able at: Last update: Octo­ber 13, 2006.
  6. Camp­bell TC, Camp­bell, TM. The Chi­na Study. Dal­las, TX: Ben­bel­la Books. 2006.