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Medicine: The High Priestess of Nutrition

4 minute read

ADELLE DAVIS doesn’t look dangerous. She is a plump, peppy housewife of 68 who lives in an ordinary suburban home in Palos Verdes, Calif., reads bestsellers and the works of Kahlil Gibran, keeps a cat and plays some tennis with her husband Frank Sieglinger, a retired accountant. But to many doctors and nutritionists, she is a menace. She replies in kind, castigating “the money boys” of the food industry and the universities for their “oldfashioned scientific attitude,” which she says is more concerned with prestige and abstract research than with people.

As the high priestess of a new nutrition religion, she preaches a gospel that many scientists and academicians find heretical. According to Davis, who holds a master’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Southern California School of Medicine, malnutrition is at the root of most of America’s health, emotional and social problems, and only proper nutrition offers the populace a chance for salvation.

She is winning converts. Her four books on nutrition and health (Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit, Let’s Get Well, Let’s Cook It Right and Let’s Have Healthy Children) have sold around 7,000,000 copies. Millions regard her as an oracle where eating is concerned. Even a few doctors who disagree with her opinion on the need for vitamins and other dietary supplements subscribe to some of her dietary dogmas. A number of nutritionists, for instance, are as critical as she of obstetricians who force pregnant women to control their weight stringently. That kind of dieting is frequently carried to extremes unhealthy for both the fetus and the mother.

Though she may have scientific support on specific points, her grand philosophy strikes many as both too broad and too simple: “Poor nutrition has almost wrecked America. I think the crime scene, the mental-health scene, the drug scene are related to nutritional defects.” One of her prime targets is packaged bread, generally considered nourishing because of enrichment, but obviously not sufficient by itself. Says she: “Years and years ago, prisoners were put on bread and water. If they were put on today’s bread and water, they would die. Then all those people who don’t believe in capital punishment but who have been feeding their children this very kind of bread for years and years would raise holy hell.”

Adelle, as her followers call her, has been raising just that for years. One of the earliest supporters of the natural-food movement, she follows a diet of fruit, home-grown vegetables, raw milk, eggs and cheese, makes her own cereal from oatmeal, almonds and wheat germ. She also fortifies her diet by taking no fewer than six vitamins and supplements after each meal—to make up for any nutrients missing from her foods or destroyed in their preparation.

She takes vitamin C for stress, recommends vitamins to avoid a wide variety of diseases and conditions, including heart disease, some cancers and diabetes. She writes that one patient was cured of tuberculosis while on her diet.

Most of Adelle’s followers are true believers. Adelle herself says that she gets thousands of letters from people who have followed her dietary prescriptions to improve their sexual performance, ease depression or just look and feel better. Many of her disciples become proselytizers for the new faith. “Adelle,” says one of her fans, “has all the answers.”

Does she really? Her emphasis on raw milk, eggs and cheese could be an invitation to overweight and heart trouble. She does insist, to be sure, that proper nutrition is no substitute for medical care. But her grand design of diet could induce the medically naive to ignore symptoms of serious diseases while waiting for vitamins and wheat germ to work their wonders. The Chicago Nutrition Association includes three of her books on its list of works that are not recommended. Dr. Edward H. Rynearson, professor emeritus of the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine of the University of Minnesota, is even more critical. He has conducted a careful study of her books, claims to have found hundreds of errors of fact and interpretation. Says he: “Any physician or dietitian will find the book larded with inaccuracies, misquotation and unsubstantiated statements.”

Bernard Scheuer, a Tenafly, N.J., dentist, is equally unimpressed with Adelle’s approach. A patient reported in to his office with advanced—and painful—untreated gum disease. Accounting for his belated decision to seek professional attention, the man explained: “I tried the Adelle Davis vitamin formula and it still hurts.”

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