We live in an age of absurd health faddiness. Do you need to eat less gluten? Should you be drinking one cup of coffee a day? Two? None? Should you get fries with that burger, or just the burger with no bun but with a dollop of coconut oil melting on top?
These are all interesting questions. Some of them are extremely hard to answer. Some, not so much.
Today I came across one of the latter:
“Is eating dirt good for my health?”
At first I assumed it was a joke. Dirt is, well…dirt. There’s virtually no nutritional content, it tastes like literal shit — probably because it often is — and it’s also pretty damn dirty*.
But no health claim is so ridiculous that some idiots won’t claim it to be true.
This time, they are just wrong.
The practice of eating soil goes back millennia. Or, at least that’s what the proponents of geophagia — the scientific term for soil-guzzling — would have you believe. It’s certainly true that some cultures have practiced geophagia for a long time — especially in parts of sub-Saharan Africa where it is considered good for pregnant women — but generally speaking the current trend for dirt consumption seems to be driven by a common health myth: that our lives have become “too clean”.
There’s no such thing as being too clean when it comes to parasites
The basic argument is that we’ve become too obsessed with things like hand washing and rubber gloves, and what you really need is a good old dose of diarrhea. “Stop washing your vegetables!” proponents argue, “You’re missing out on ‘good’ bacteria and putting nasty chemicals on your food instead”.
What you should do instead is leave yourself open to infection. This will strengthen your immune system and get rid of all disease.
It might not be as insane as it sounds. For a few limited conditions there’s some evidence that exposure helps. For example, there’s emerging evidence that banning peanuts from expectant mothers’ diets may have contributed to the peanut allergy increases seen in the last 20 years.
But the claims about eating dirt are…not as well evidenced.
This is complete nonsense. I don’t usually say that, because someone will pull up a study done somewhere in the world and wave it around like a half-drunk matador who hasn’t realized he’s using a dishrag instead of a cloak.
In this case, I’m pretty confident. After looking pretty comprehensively, I couldn’t find a single study that looked at whether people who eat dirt are better off than people who don’t. This is not surprising, because a) there’s no reason to believe that dirt is good for you and b) there are plenty of reasons to believe that it could hurt.
I know. Shocker. Dirt isn’t the greatest thing to eat. Who knew**?
Dirt Isn’t Good For You
Which brings us nicely to the problems with the dirt-diet. Because despite claims to the contrary, it’s actually generally pretty good to stop yourself getting infections. Getting infections is a bad thing. Being sick doesn’t usually make your body better at anything, it just makes you sick.
The whole idea is just ignorant idiocy. You don’t make yourself healthier by exposing yourself to more things that could kill you. That’s like trying to make your legs stronger by jumping off a building. Even if you survive the fall, you aren’t going to improve your health at all. Exposure to potentially deadly infection isn’t a fun, carefree experience that you can shrug off and get on with your day. It’s a terrifying plummet towards the cold, uncaring ground.
Eating dirt carries a huge number of risks. There are innumerable pathogens that live in soil, including nasty things like parasitic worms, disease-causing fungi, and bacteria. Your average garden dirt is also often contaminated with nasty things like lead, which isn’t a problem unless you eat the damn stuff.
This is a story about more than just geophagia. It’s an easy target. It doesn’t take much to refute the idea that eating actual soil from the ground is good for your health. Any parent who’s had to pry a wriggling clump of soil from their 2-year-old’s mouth can tell you it’s not the healthiest stuff around.
This is about fear.
We have become terrified that we are getting too clean. Whether it’s because we’ve read one of David “Mushrooms Are Literally From Outer Space” Wolfe’s screeds about nasty chemicals, or because someone on Facebook posted about how cleaning your hands causes Alzheimer’s, it comes down to the same belief:
“You are sick because you don’t get sick enough. Get sick more and you’ll stop being sick”
The obvious contradiction doesn’t matter here. This is fear, not logic. Modernity is terrifying, and the past is full of rosy memories. It doesn’t matter that our grandparents were stricken with polio, or that the average life expectancy back when we didn’t wash food was in the low 30s. Modern medicine is scary.
But you know what’s scarier than a doctor wearing a white coat?
All things that people lucky enough to live in wealthy countries no longer have to worry about because of simple, basic public health improvements.
Things like not eating dirt.
*I won’t apologize for this pun you can’t make me.
**Everyone. Everyone knew.