By Marika Sboros
If nutrition science proves anything these days, it’s that Karl Marx was right. Religion really is the “opium of the masses”. It’s why unscientific dietary advice continues to spread globally, says Australian orthopaedic surgeon Dr Gary Fettke.
Fettke was a keynote speaker at the CrossFit Health Conference in Madison, Wisconsin on August 2, 2017. The title of his talk: The Central Role of Nutrition in Our Health, Education, Economics, Politics, Environment and Beliefs.
In the first of a two-part series, Fettke raises a taboo in nutrition science: Big Religion. He also shines a light on what one church calls its divinely inspired “medical evangelism”.
Fettke gave evidence to show that religious ideology informs and influences official dietary guidelines worldwide.
It also explains why financial and other conflicts of interest are rife in nutrition science. And why nutrition guidelines are increasingly “plant-based”. He said that some religious doctors and dietitians have appropriated the term “plant-based” simply because it distances them from overtly religious associations with vegetarian diets.
The consequences for health, economies and the environment have been “disastrous”.
Fettke has identified a church that believes in divinely ordained “medical evangelism” – the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Church that started out in the US in 1863. Many of its members are vegetarians or vegans. Nothing wrong with that, of course. It’s just that many don’t declare their dietary bias when dishing out advice, he said.
Despite being relatively young, the SDA church is one of the world’s fastest-growing churches. It is also one of the most influential groups in the world on nutrition education and policy.
It has spawned doctors, dietitians and scientists who perform medical evangelism, Fettke said. They do so without declaring their religious beliefs as COIs. Thus, they make their beliefs into propaganda about diet and health across the planet.
Where is the best place to hide propaganda? “In plain sight,” Fettke said.
‘Educating’ children …
As medical evangelists, Adventists have been “educating” the health profession for a century, he said. They have also been “educating” children with cereal product placement in various media for decades. In fact, they were the first to come up with that idea.
Fettke went through the Church’s nutrition history, demonstrating how it developed in tandem with the processed food industry. And how, through their vegetarian bias, Adventists developed nutrition guidelines rooted in the processed food industry.
They helped to make the foundations of the future dietetic industry “rotten to the core”, Fettke said. Orthodox dietitians with religious leaning make “easy meat” for ideological, belief-based programming, he said. And it is in orthodox dietitians’ blood to associate themselves with industry and an ideology. “They probably don’t even realise it.”
Knowing the rules
Fettke showed how Adventists still routinely promote demonisation of red meat based on the visions of the Church’s founder, Ellen G White in the US.
Aged 17 in 1844, White started having visions that became the Adventist teachings. One vision was for medical evangelism.
“We are to work as gospel medical missionaries,” White wrote. For her, medical evangelism was “the right arm of the message”. Part of that medical mission, she wrote, was for disciples to set up hospitals, sanatoriums and places of learning.
White also had a vision about best foods: “Grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables constitute the diet chosen for us by our Creator.” Crucially, her visions became gospel in medical and dietetic establishments globally, Fettke said.
Meat and cancer debate
At first glance, White’s values in her visions are “not that unreasonable”, he said. The temperance concepts of abstinence from tobacco and alcohol are there. White also encouraged exercise – “modest”, only – and involving community.
Her visions of nutrition values, on the other hand, turned out “not quite as planned”. The idea that “meat gives you cancer” also came from one of White’s visions, Fettke said.
“She started talking about cancer and meat in 1864,” he said. “We are still hearing that message despite no science behind it.”
— Gary Fettke (@FructoseNo) August 4, 2017
‘Violent’ meat eaters
White believed that meat-eaters were violent, “cruel, bloodthirsty” and prone to masturbation, which she called the “solitary vice”. It made people “surely self-murderers as though they pointed a pistol to their own breast, and destroyed their life instantly”, she wrote.
White also exhorted her disciples never to place meat “in front of our children”.
She also had “special plans” for Australia in one vision in 1875. She said that it was the only country that angels ever mentioned to her by name. As a result, Adventist medical evangelism and influence on nutrition and health in Australia became as extensive as in the US, Fettke showed.
From the outset, Adventists established close links with processed food industries, particularly the sugar, grain and cereal industry and refined food industry, he said. In the US, Seventh-day Adventists established around 100 cereal-based processed food companies, many of which have merged. Kellogg’s is the most well-known and ranked among the world’s wealthiest food producers.
White went to Australia between 1889 and 1900 to set up the Seventh-day Adventist church, hospital, publishing house, school and university. She also founded the church’s cereal company, Sanitarium Health and Wellbeing. The name is a misnomer, Fettke said.
The company’s highly refined, processed products can’t compare with nutrient density of foods of animal origin. Its flagship product is Weet-Bix, a top-seller in the breakfast cereal market. In essence, cereal- and grain-based dietary guidelines have “done the church’s business model no harm”, Fettke pointed out.
Adventists have continued pushing vegetarian and vegan agendas actively onto national health policies in many countries. They set up their own processed food companies around the world, he said.
Thanks to White’s guidance from “above”, Adventists have also become extraordinarily media-savvy , he said. Adventists were early adopters of medical programs on radio and cooking shows on television to spread their medical and health gospels.
The church now owns 62 publishing houses. Among its members are 25,000 “literature evangelists” tasked with “spreading” the vegetarian and health message in nearly 380 languages. It also owns 853 radio stations and 441 television stations. And it produces more than 70,000 podcasts each year in 229 languages with over 1.1 billion downloads in 2015.
Science v belief
The problem throughout, Fettke said is that discussions and communications are based on belief, not science.
Vegetarian groups regularly quote Adventist health studies in support of their cause, he said. As well, Adventists do these studies on themselves, often publish in their own press and cross-reference off each other.
Fettke hasn’t read all Adventist studies but of those he has read, he hasn’t seen any declaration of ideological or religious conflict of interest.
Fettke also showed how Adventist Lenna F Cooper co-founded the American Dietetic Association (ADA) in 1917. She was a protégé of Dr John Harvey Kellogg, one of the founders of the cereal industry.
The global ‘voice’ of dietetics
Cooper wrote textbooks that lecturers used for dietetic and nursing programmes around the world for 30 formative years. In this way, she became the global “voice” of dietetics.
Cooper also appears to have originated the idea of breakfast as “the most important meal of the day”. She wrote as much in a 1917 issue of Good Health. The publication is self-proclaimed as the “oldest health magazine in the world”, as Huffington Post senior editor Sarah Klein noted.
In A Brief History Of How Breakfast Got Its ‘Healthy’ Rep, Klein notes that the magazine editor was none other than Kellogg, the co-inventor of flaked cereal. Kellogg was a medical doctor, Klein writes, “but there’s no denying he had a product to sell”.
In this way, Adventist medical evangelism has persuaded health authorities to dish up vegetarian ideology to the public for decades, Fettke said. And as a result, they have turned authorities into “defenders of a faith without understanding its origin”.
Through Cooper, Adventists set out to establish dietetic advice “for the world’. The ADA only changed its name to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) in 2012. AND remains the largest, most influential organization of food and nutrition professionals in the US.
But just what role has religious ideology played in current nutrition advice? “A great deal, as it turns out,” Fettke said. And ideological nutrition influence is not limited to dietitians’ groups.
Take the recent statement by the American Heart Association (AHA) on dietary fats and cardiovascular disease. Apart from cherry-picking the evidence, the researchers failed to declare recent funding from the vegetable oil industry, Fettke said.
They also failed to declare that several of the statement’s authors support vegetarianism and veganism. That makes their statement belief-based not evidence-based, he said.
A chief weapon Adventists have used to influence nutrition advice and guidelines is to make cereals and grains into the “sacred cows”.
Most Adventist medical evangelists probably mean well, Fettke said. They don’t set out to con people and manipulate. However, they appear to believe that medical evangelism makes them immune from ethical constraints governing the conduct of other health professionals.
COIs hiding in plain sight
Hidden COIs turn nutrition advice into a game with consequences that Fettke feels is criminal. And, if you don’t know the rules, you can’t play the game, he said.
Click here to read: Is DAA really in bed with Big Food?
In his public talks, Fettke makes a point of declaring his conflicts of interest. Chiefly, in this case, is that he advocates a low-carb, healthy-fat (LCHF) lifestyle. It is the fruits of his research over many years into optimum nutrition to treat and prevent chronic diseases of lifestyle.
Principles of the diet include reducing sugar and processed carbohydrates and reintroducing healthy natural fats. It also includes animal foods – and red meat. Fettke also emphasised that he is not anti-religion or even anti-vegetarianism. Tongue firmly in cheek, he described himself as a vegetarian who takes supplements (red meat and real food) to ensure a “balanced diet”.
Thus, he calls himself a “carno-ovo-lacto-pesco-pollo vegetarian”.
— Gary Fettke (@FructoseNo) August 2, 2017
Propaganda versus personal choice
Fettke is also not against personal choice. “I am against propaganda,” he said.
By way of example, Fettke referred to battles back home as a result of his support for LCHF. His own regulatory body, the Australian Health Practitioners Regulatory Agency (AHPRA) slapped a lifetime ban on him from talking about nutrition.
Fettke and wife, Belinda, have set up a new website, isupportgary.com. It’s well worth a visit.
Fettke’s research into who and what are behind the attacks against him led straight to the Adventist Church. It also revealed many of the hidden rules of the game. He is, therefore, unambiguous about nutritional research and advice based on belief and to “prove a vision”. He calls it “criminal” enterprise.
- Part 2: The ‘unique’ partnerships that Adventists make to spread beliefs about vegetarian lifestyles
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