As food fads go, macrobiotic may be a dish served cold, but it is not stand-out bonkers. Fanatical, perhaps, and a bit Hollywood hairshirt, but a bunch of burdock or some scrambled tofu on rye never hurt anyone, surely. Now comes the revelation that macrobiotic guru Mario Pianesi, a 73-year-old Albanian-born, Italian-based businessman, has allegedly been running a cult, with the healing power of food as the bait that lured in potential victims.
For my money, any diet or food regime that forbids whole food groups is neither sustainable nor entirely sane. Still, food as a lifestyle choice that confers status and tribal, or A-list, belonging is one thing. Food as the basis of a cult that enslaves the vulnerable, as Pianesi's is said to have done, takes the cult of nutrition to a new and dark place.
Diets make some people loopy. We know that. Food fads make hollow promises. The anticipated outcomes are controlling; they make the rational behave in irrational ways. Actress and model Elizabeth Hurley eating six raisins, and calling that her 'snack'. Actress Gwyneth Paltrow exercising for twelve hours, not a month, but a week. Beyonce following the Lemonade Diet. Oh, excuse me, that should read: the Master Cleanse diet. ‘What can you eat? The Answer is nothing,’ according to Webmd.boots.com.
There’s a clue to extreme eating in that word ‘master,’ isn’t there? For many westerners, food, physique and self-esteem are corralled into an unholy trinity. The question is, who is cracking the whip?
We know the answer: a culture that deifies, defines and commodifies the female, as well as the male, body.
Nevertheless, the idea that a macrobiotic diet could be the starting point for a cult, that it could be used as psychic weaponry and a means of asserting power and control is more than a little unsavoury.
But then, the more I think about it, the more it makes perfect sense.
Individuals sought out Pianesi because he purports to be able to use his ‘Ma-Pi’ macrobiotic regime for healing. His four-strong group, which has been dubbed a ‘psycho-cult,’ was exposed earlier this month following an investigation which began in 2013 after a woman whose weight had fallen to 35kg (5st 7lb) told police Pianesi had promised that his ‘Ma-Pi’ diet would cure her illness.
Six complainants have come forward, according to a Guardian report, with lead investigator Carlo Pinto suggesting there could be “hundreds more” who are “still under the cult’s influence”. Followers are, says the Guardian, reduced to ‘virtual slavery’.
The Guardian writes: “Complainants describe a sinister network that allegedly wielded power through a diet claiming to provide miracle cures for illnesses such as HIV, cancer and diabetes.” Once on board, followers were ensnared with irrational rules that were introduced incrementally. Women were allegedly banned from wearing makeup or short skirts, for instance, or from washing during their periods. According to Italian regional news website Cronache Maceratesi, followers were also allegedly asked to provide ‘sexual services’ including ‘massages,’ in order to transfer the positive energy a macrobiotic diet purportedly generates.
Pianesi, also once dubbed a “benefactor of humanity,” is credited with co-founding the first organic farm in Italy, in 1975. Today, the auto-didact’s business empire includes 85 macrobiotic restaurants and product hubs. Revered, in 2016 he met Pope Francis. This same man, the Guardian writes, ‘allegedly told followers that traditional medicine did not work and real doctors were killers.’
So. It is another story about power, and how power corrupts. It is a story about gurus getting ahead of themselves, of god syndrome, of getting big-headed, and of more sinister and serious concerns, including, it would seem, psychological cruelty.
But it is also a story for our times about what happens to us when we are sick and vulnerable. It highlights how even those who put their trust in traditional medicine are susceptible to the hyperbolic claims of unscrupulous, self-styled healers and untrained alternative health practitioners and nutritionists.
Many of us who have been diagnosed with cancer, as I was myself in 2013, have encountered claims that alternative healing and certain foodstuffs or food regimes can help us, or even cure us.
During my own treatment for head and neck cancer, which was a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, I was gifted a consultation with Cindy, a London-based healer so highly reputed her fans call her a white witch.
As I recount in my memoir, my sons once had a white witch for a nanny. For my part, I once consulted a witch doctor, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo; it was an act of cultural tourism rather than necessity on my part, and arguably a questionable one. That's another story.
Locals call Pianesi a witch doctor, invoking a healer whose means of healing they either don’t understand or consider mysterious. Witch doctors are consulted out of need, perhaps even desperation, those mysterious ways part of the package.
A white witch is a less fetishised phenomenon. It is a broad sweep of a term for a good sort.
Not knowing the nature of Cindy’s practice, when I rang to arrange my visit, shortly after the end of my chemotherapy, I asked how she worked.
‘It’s hard to explain,’ she said. ‘You’d have to come and see for yourself.’ She also said: ‘I can make sure the cancer does not come back.’
Bold, I thought at the time, and not entirely appropriate.
After establishing that my father died when I was five years old, a biographical fact reluctantly provided, Cindy told me she knew why I got head and neck cancer.
‘You could not speak to your father.’
I did not know cancer was a matter of cause and effect.
I left that so-called consultation feeling vulnerable in a way I had not done on arrival.
Before I left, Cindy showed me her Nutribullet, the Prada of juicers. She urged me to start a juice-only regimen to boost my immune system. The recommendation was entirely at odds with the recommendations of my oncologist and my Macmillan nutritionist, which was to bulk up while I could still eat. If I lost weight, the radiotherapy mask I would shortly be wearing would not fit, hampering the precision targeting the treatment required.
This ‘healer’ gave me nutritonal advice when perhaps she was not in a position to do so.
The relationship between health and nutrition has not yet been scientifically proven; until it is, the alternative healer who includes food rules in their bag of tricks can practise at will.
Happily, in the UK research into nutritional science is paving the way for general medicine to take heed of the role of nutrition in healing. "It's time we recognised that food and nutrition are core to health," according to the British Medical Journal's editor in chief, Fiona Goodlee, speaking on Radio 4's The Food Programme.
To this end, the British Medical Journal: Nutrition is being launched later this year, and Nutritank, a student-led online society has been set up by current medical students in order to 'promote the need for greater nutrition education in medical schools and in other healthcare settings'.
Good stuff. Any health guidelines on nutrition which emerge as a result of these initiatives cannot come soon enough. They may serve to protect those who become vulnerable as a result of chronic illness from unscrupulous or ill-informed practitioners.
In the meantime, we might do well to think about the culture of dependence that also has us in its clutches. We should be wary of gurus, zealots, anyone who recommends extreme regimens or who promises a cure for an illness, a cure which conventional doctors are unable to offer.
Food fads are one thing. Fanatics who use food as a way of separating individuals from their community, their family or the outside world are altogether more dangerous.