It turns out, despite decades of diet fads and government-issued food pyramids, we know surprisingly little about the science of nutrition. It is very hard to do high-quality randomized trials: They require people to adhere to a diet for years before there can be any assessment of significant health outcomes. The largest ever — which found that the “Mediterranean diet” lowered the risk for heart attacks and strokes — had to be retracted and republished with softened conclusions. Most studies are observational, relying on food diaries or the shaky memories of participants. There are many such studies, with over a hundred thousand people assessed for carbohydrate consumption, or fiber, salt or artificial sweeteners, and the best we can say is that there might be an association, not anything about cause and effect. Perhaps not surprisingly, these studies have serially contradicted one another. Meanwhile, the field has been undermined by the food industry, which tries to exert influence over the research it funds.
Now the central flaw in the whole premise is becoming clear: the idea that there is one optimal diet for all people.
“I’m a Russian-American writer,” I said. In reality, I was in my early twenties and I hadn’t written a thing. But it was 1998 and there was no one else I could recommend but me.
So I received my very first writing contract and busied myself with becoming understandable to an audience I assumed would be unfamiliar with the Russian-Jewish immigrant experience. My primary model for this type of narrative was Eva Hoffman’s luminous memoir of immigrating from Poland to Canada, Lost in Translation, and I set about earnestly imitating its meditative style, trying to pin down the feeling of belonging nowhere, a sense I’d felt at the time of displacement and invisibility. Looking back now, my first work was an act of introduction, a translation.
Subtlety is necessary to satire, but is not prized in the US. We value outgoingness, aplomb, direct attacks and celebrations. We favour straight arrows over innuendo. This is a weakness. Satire is the most difficult mode in literature because it functions with a delicate, invisible layer of self-awareness – which readers often lack. An insensitive reader of Less Than Zero might think, “Well, that was disturbing,” and point to the moments of vivid exploitation as “inappropriate” and “wrong”. Such a reading does not appreciate the incredible timing, restraint, and synchronicity in the writing, nor the fact that these “inappropriate” scenes are actually a direct reflection of reality. We often refuse to acknowledge the ugliness in ourselves and in our world, out of shame or vanity.
The Gendered Brain is one of those books that should be essential reading before anyone is allowed to be a teacher, or buy a child a present, or comment on anything on Twitter, ever again … but my fear is that Rippon is preaching to the choir. That said, all systemising brains out there owe it to themselves to read this calm and logical collection of evidence and science, and all empathisers will understand its importance.