Those of us old enough to have lived through the 1970s can probably remember a novelty song called “Junk Food Junkie” from 1976. It was a sly commentary on the health food craze of the time, as Baby Boomers channeled their idealism into health-conscious, planet-friendly lifestyles. The song’s narrator talks up the good dieting habits he parades around in front of his peers, but then owns up to indulging his cravings when no one’s looking: “In the daytime I’m Mr. Natural, just as healthy as I can be. But at night I’m a junk food junkie, good Lord have pity on me.” It’s a silly song full of light-hearted jabs at the performative self-care of the crunchy-granola era.
This bit of pop culture ephemera wafted through my mind earlier this month when the news broke of a 17-year-old boy whose junk food diet left him blind from optic neuropathy. It was a story tailor-made for viral success on social media: a human tragedy, a cautionary tale and a medical oddity all in one. The boy subsisted for years on not much more than Pringles, French fries, white bread and a little pork. With only negligible amounts of vitamin B12 in his diet, lasting—and now permanent—neuropathic damage ensued. (In this, “Junk Food Junkie” was somewhat prophetic: “I’m afraid someday they’ll find me, just stretched out on my bed. With a handful of Pringles potato chips, and a Ding Dong by my head.”)
The public outrage directed at the boy and his parents for such behavior—this wasn’t a momentary lapse of reason, but prolonged inattention to nutrition—was at odds with the actual eating habits commonly practiced. One need only look at the obesity statistics to see the disconnect between what we preach and what we practice. Americans are pretty schizophrenic about food. Seeing, on social media, nasty jabs at this poor kid intermingled with lavish praise for the new Popeye’s chicken sandwich was jarring, to say the least.
Those early adopters of organic eating habits in the ’70s knew the importance of individual responsibility in shaping the course of their health. Nowadays we call this concept wellness. Though it’s gaining in mainstream acceptance, too many people still associate it, derisively, with the era of macramé and platform shoes.
Truth is, we need to take healthy eating more seriously. And optometrists are increasingly well-situated to spark such a change. Diligence toward creating a sustainable health-promoting diet can dramatically alter the course of diabetes, and to a lesser extent AMD, in this country.
At the risk of being exploitative of the unfortunate individual who brought ‘nutritional neuropathy’ into the public consciousness, I think the case could be a real wake-up call to those patients who need to start making some changes. Conventional public health awareness campaigns, though well-intentioned, lack urgency and drama. But showing your patients a direct, if extreme, example linking diet to vision loss just might (excuse the pun) open a few eyes.