Holistic Harry

This semi-autobiographical comic novel does for alternative medicine what “Health Food Junkies” does for healthy-diet-ism, which is to say, tells a story of former belief, with the following difference: I truly miss believing in alternative medicine, but I am profoundly glad not to be a raw foods vegan anymore.

The Adventures of Holistic Harry (also known as Confessions of a Quack)

NOTE: The author, Steven Bratman, wishes to make clear that he disagrees with several aspects of the book, and is willing to debate himself, any time, any place on these controversial elements of an otherwise hilarious masterpiece.

Other articles:

Adapted from the appendix to Holistic Harry, here is an often republished article on why double blind studies are essential for discovering whether a treatment works, and, conversely, why it is so difficult to know what foods might be healthy: Double blind studies

This related article, written at a somewhat more technical level, focuses specifically on the difficulty of proving foods healthy or unhealthy, using the example of saturated fat: Dietary fat and Cardiovascular Disease


33 thoughts on “Holistic Harry

  1. HH is a lot about women.
    Like alt-med is a misguided attempt at feminist medicine, that is actually medicine that conforms to the female gender stereotype – the emphasis on feelings, intuition, esthetics rather than reasoning and science.
    Women are the main customers of alt-med, and that’s partly because so many women have unexplained fatigue and illnesses that are the sort of thing that alt-med tries to help with. It’s mostly women who go around with puzzling illnesses like CFS, looking for help and not finding it.
    Women are more prone to autoimmune diseases, and maybe more prone to allergies. Immune system problems like that can cause fatigue and feeling sick without specific symptoms. That’s at least part of the explanation.
    And a lot of the skeptics are male, and the poor deluded fools they write about who imagine they are being helped by alt-med are usually female. So skepticism becomes a way for men (and women sometimes) to feel good about dismissing women’s experiences and putting them down as irrational. That same old beast – sexist trashing of women – comes back in a new guise, as Promoting Science and Reason.
    There needs to be a feminist critique of alt-med. Medical research is desperately needed to help with these poorly-understood health problems that so many women have. Not feelings and intuition – rationality is needed.

      1. I didn’t mean to imply that you were expressing that sexist trashing of women in HH.
        Just that there’s a lot of sexism in online skepticism, in the way these (mostly males) regard the female believers in alt-med, and how they sometimes decide without good evidence that these women are just expressing psychological problems, that their symptoms are only in their head.
        A feminist skepticism is necessary.

  2. i loved HH and I love this site. Too many of my students are so obsessed with what they eat that they no longer are able to enjoy eating. I am going to put your site on my reference list, if you don’t mind.
    It seems when people use food to treat medical situations-they are using it as a drug.
    And.. It seems, these drugs have side effects too.
    Thanks again

    1. Thanks for your kind words! Yes, dietary therapy has side effects — the main one being that one has to be too strict with oneself. It *might* be worth it, but considering it to be an approach without flaws is to misjudge how easily food can tap into some crazy places in the psyche

  3. Steven,
    I enjoyed “Holistic Harry”.
    I’ve heard of clergy who no longer believe in the religion. But they stay in their clergy jobs because they don’t know how else to make a living; and they’re afraid that being honest about their nonbelief will damage their personal relationships.
    I didn’t realize that it might be like that for alt-med people: becoming an emotional trap when after a few decades of doing it, they lose faith.
    The alt-med people I’ve met, have seemed like thoroughly true believers. No PTB’s yet.
    I was glad to hear that you started out as a math person (I suppose that was autobiographical). I’m into math a lot.

  4. I downloaded and read this story–loved it, especially the exposé of how the diet gurus operate! A lot of funny stuff, and some pretty tragic. I was mortified to find out I still owned a few of those woo-woo books you debunked, and promptly dumped them in the trash.

  5. I noticed a few grammatical and spelling errors , but I was typing quickly on a smartphone. I rarely ever visit a typical restaurant for a meal. I have enjoyed excellent meals at 5 star restaurants but i ALWAYS check them out first! I NEVER dine at fast food or even typical family restaurants because it is a risk that I do not want to take. As for so-called GMO or GE foods, the FDA and USDA do not mandate peer reviewed studies on these items. They are illegal for this same reason in many other countries. We should not rest until all confounding variables are tested. Presently, rarely are confounding or independent variables controlled or tested in public where other unbiased researchers can conduct additional studies.

  6. I have an MS in Organic Chemistry and have 10 years experience as a food technologist (Pilot plant) and 15 years experience in medicinal chemistry for two major drug manufacturers. I was appalled by what I experienced in terms of food and drug safety.

    I decided the only way I could participate in my interest in regulatory affairs concerning these issues I was hired by the FDA as a “Consumer Safety Officer” working in criminal investigations for O.R.A. ( Office of Regulatory Affairs- FDA). As a result of my experience and knowledge I have both a broad and detailed view of these issues. It is true that there are consumers who seem to be fixated on a particular food safety or nutrition topic, but because they are concerned is not the problem. IMHO The bigger problem is that most consumers delegate to government those responsibilities that they should assume themselves. I resigned from the FDA after witnessing bribery, waste, fraud and abuse. I know a few of the FDA investigators who have been caught for requiring bribes to look the other way but their managers and supervisors have been promoted and also work as Food and Drug Industry consultants. One specializes in GMP’s. He gives inside information to those firms who pay him to teach how to avoid investigations or

    I am not a “health nut” but am aware of serious issues concerning safety with both foods and drugs. I own a small ranch where grow my own vegetables and raises my own chickens for my family. I can trade produce with the local “farmer- physicians” or “farmer engineers” because it is a federal offense. Which is worse? Fear of gun wielding FDA agents raiding a small back yard vegetable garden? Guns are designed to KILL. There is no other purpose. So is it rational to use guns to threaten consumers who want to know what is in their food? I am a strong advocate for LABELING laws that got in much more detail than present. Not only Genetically Engineered foods but the USA has a serious problem with illegally imported honey from China. The FDA, USDA and most states refuse to monitor or conduct Import surveillance activities on honey mislabeled as originating from the USA when it is actually from China where there are very few regulations on honey safety.

  7. It was not without a small amount of trepidation that I began to read Holistic Harry (what is read cannot be unread). I had just finished your orthorexia book – timely and needed – and decided to visit your Web site. I am — as a darkly comic aside – a recently licensed acupuncturist, at age 42, having gone into > six figures of debt (me and a lot of other people), do something “meaningful” with my life. A choice that I am deeply ambivalent about when I am not psyching myself up to be more positive.

    It’s been an interesting ride, because well before that – for the last 20 years since I was an undergrad – I have pretty much done it all in the world of alternative medicine.
    For me, the descent into orthorexia over the last few years has lead me to questioning a lot of what I just took for granted for so long – especially in the ridiculous realm of dietary therapies: I know they work – you just have to find the right one, amidst all the contradictions, cherry-picked science, and cult-like mentality of leaders/followers. Good luck with that.

    It would be a lot easier for me, I suppose, if i could be a true believer – there are so many – but (regrettably?) my mind doesn’t work that way. It’s easy for me to see where you are coming from, having nearly reached that point myself, in regard to my own struggles and experiences lately.

    I especially loved the “universal cookbook” idea — I had just thought of that myself a few weeks ago, when I told a friend that every food could be totally praised or damned by any system. It was impossible to know what to eat! Carbs are clean burning fuel. Carbs are bad for you and raise insulin and cause candida. Saturated fat leads to heart disease. Saturated fat is the ideal fuel for the body. Meat is low in anti-nutrients and allergens and is necessary for proper endocrine and immune health. Meat causes cancer and is full of toxins. I could go on and on and on…

    Regardless, I found Holistic Harry darkly hilarious at times, but also sad and disturbing.
    It seems like “medicine” in general is so lost as a profession – allopathic and alternative. I appreciate you bringing much needed clarity to so much that is taken for granted in the alternative realms. It’s helping me to take a much more nuanced and even skeptical look toward a lot that is just taken for granted.

    Also, between your orthorexia book and Holistic Harry, the realization that as a society, we’ve completely lost our collective minds about food and health – and medicine. The supplement industry is to blame for a lot of this, but so are the practitioners and especially the “gurus” who – in search of name and fame – have made cult like religions of diets and other alternative practices.

    It’s going to be an interesting path for me to walk, given my experiences and feelings about all of this.

    Thanks for you work – it is reaching people who need to hear it.

    1. Thank you for your kind comments!

      I’m not sure that we have lost our minds about health, medicine and food. Or at least, no more than we ever have before in history. I think the real problem is that the desire for advice so vastly exceeds the available knowledge that, since the dawn of history (and probably much earlier than that) the people providing medical care and advice have pretty much just been making a lot of stuff up.

  8. Thank you so much for writing and posting Holistic Harry. I was recently diagnosed with Celiac and have been going out of my mind researching diets and supplements to try to make me heal and feel better faster and the amount of conflicting and complicated diet advice out there is just mind-boggling. Oddly, I have noticed that Chiropractors seem to be heavily over-represented in this market, with many offering exhaustive expensive lab testing, diet plans and supplements to sell you galore. I guess it’s a very lucrative business, much more so than just treating musculoskeletal problems.

    The Eightfold Diet plan in HH made me chuckle and I finally was able to relax about all the conflicting, expensive, complex and frustratingly restrictive diet advice that can be found out there. Thanks to reading HH I’ve decided I’ll just stick with a traditional gluten free diet and be happy and live my life. Thanks for saving me a ton of time and money and especially for giving me my sanity back.

    1. I’m always very pleased when someone reads Holistic Harry. I’m glad it gave you a chuckle, and may even have helped you a little!

      1. Hi Steve,
        My boyfriend is now my husband, so I am hoping I can get some help for him. He recently discovered cacao powder and Macha. So now he mixes these two things in soymilk and has a cup a day. He will also eat about 10 cherry tomatoes and 10 walnuts. He might eat a half a can of sardines(70 calories). But that would be a big food day for him. He thinks he has a genetic disease, how do I get him to a doctor to approach getting him help? I am desprate he just lost another 5 pounds and when I say he should gain weight he says when he gets more strength he will start exercising. Thanks for any help. He also takes thyroid mediation, I am not sure what doctor gave these pills to him but I don’t think he needs them. My sister had thyroid cancer and she takes synthroid so I don’t think its ok for someone with a thyroid to take these drugs unless they are trying to artificially increase their metabolism

  9. I suppose you’ve been asked this before, but have you considered making this an ebook? Considering it’s length it could actually be several. I’m guessing the goal is to “get it out” and such, but even at 99 cents or something, if you really don’t want to profit from it, at least it would have that exposure … or have your publishing experiences thus far soured you on that? Or something else? I cd also see just not wanting to play at that anymore.


  10. I loved “Holistic Harry”. Thanks for putting it on your site.

    I read it before looking at your site in detail, and didn’t realize that it was semi-autobiographical. It sounds like you have an interesting story.

  11. Travelsmart continued. He has been given introvenious iron and thiaman(he won’t eat bread). He has been tested for food allergies and has none. He has had a stomache camera scan and a colonoscopy–nothing wrong with him. They wanted to started him on very expensive growth hormones…..He almost got a prescription for this…., BUT NOT ONE MEDICAL PRofessional has suggested he might not be eating enough. Actually, one doctor did and he won’t go back to him.
    Now his legs are dying. He has no circulation problems(no ED), except I think now his body has decided it can’t support his legs and decided to stop taking care of them. Fortunately next week we are going to the same doctor and I am going to suggest, what his real problem is. I have given him articles by Steven, but he doesn’t think its him.

  12. Hi, Its me travelsmart. Unfortunately there has been very little improvment or change and the scariest thing to me is that the medical profession is blind to this problem. In my personal instance my boyfriend now weighs 99Lbs(soaking wet) and is 5’10” tall. He gained some weight this summer and got up to 106lb. He has been to more specialists than I can name. He is trying to find a “genetic” cause for his thinness. (He really just doesn’t eat and he lies to doctors about his food intake). He tells them he drinks ensure(he really drinks olive oil and has a teaspoon of yeast and claims this is the same as Ensure). HE was told by one smart doctor to eat createn—ie, meat. So he bought a pound of the best beef and it lasted him 2 weeks, but he won’t buy anymore. He studies a leaf of kale, for 5 minutes before he puts it in a blender. Makes an organic shake and then stores it in his fridge.

  13. I can relate to this story. Since I was a teenager, I have been trying many new age therapies to fix my back. I even became a massage therapist thinking that would give me the tools to fix my back and my clients. Eventually, after 20 years of practice, I realized the hard truth that to be a successful massage therapist, one has to start out with a perfect back to attract clients. Massage never helped me or any of my ill clients. It only worked on healthy clients. Now, I am 52 years old and now needing to get neurosurgery for spinal stenotic radiomyelopathy in my lumbar, thoracic and cervical spines. My spine is full of moderate to severe ddd, osteoarthritic bone spurs, and herniated discs. I enjoyed giving massages and now am forced into retirement very early. Doing energy work, though physically easy, is out for me, as a career choice. I do not believe in it. It never helped me. At least I am not living a lie. Thanks again for writing Holistic Harry.

  14. My boyfriend suffers from this disorder. He is unwilling to admit it at this time and his health is severely failing. He will at my insistence and urging now eat organic bread. In the past 3 months he has gained 6 pounds, but he doesn’t attribute the weight gain to eating bread…just a different scale. Prior to the organic bread he ate only liquids including heavy amounts of soy. He is so severely underweight that he is having secondary symptoms, but thank God he cannot continue to dress in 4 layers of clothing since summer is coming.
    He goes to tons of doctors for tests, but they can’t find anything wrong except his wasting. I told him this is good news, continue to eat organic bread and gain weight. I gave him your article, but he insists he wants to gain weight, just not eat junk. He calls food manufacturers because he wants to know exactly how the food is made. His refrigerator is full of food as are his cabinets and he obsesses on food every day and takes him a very long time to prepare his food. I need to lose weight and so I have suggested we both do a food diary. I hope it goes well. I am not sure how much longer he can survive.

    1. how are things going? do you have any advice? i know someone close to me who I believe is suffering from something very similar to what you described, and I am concerned.

  15. Great semi-autobiographical novel, but I could not fathom being close to family members or loved ones and maintain a secret that pits truth against their beliefs, especially if you made a load of money off of it. I mean, by not objecting to them you’re justifying their beliefs. And what about afterwards, after the double-blind studies that prove nearly all of ‘holistic medicine’ is rubbish, what then? What if it is revealed to the world that this best selling diet book is a fabricated scam, from someone on the inside?

    Belief is a powerful thing in a human brain, but even more sobering and potent is reality; whether or not someone wants to accept it, it still happens around them. I’m really not sure how you could maintain honesty with yourself and those you love and also maintain the cognitive dissonance you hold. Sounds…messy.

    1. (Glad you liked it! Re: your comments. The “semi” part is significant In real life I had to renounce the whole thing.)

  16. Awesome! Very well written. Really appreciate you taking the time and effort to craft this wonderful gift. I got a lot out of it and the people I know that could benefit the most from reading this likely won’t spend the time to do so. Would love to find a way to communicate the sentiments in this potent story in a more abbreviated fashion. Much Gratitude!

  17. I really enjoyed this. There was a time I considered becoming an ND, and after reading your book I’m happy I didn’t. It definitely made me think. My mom was diagnosed with microscopic colitis two years ago, and was given steroids to prevent the nausea, stomach pain, and diarrhea. None of us wanted her to live on steroids, so she found an ND type doctor. He diagnosed her with candida, and put her on that very diet. Not surprisingly, it didn’t work. She now gets amino acid therapy, which are basically expensive shots of who knows what. She feels much better and attributes this to the shots, but after reading your story I wonder how much is placebo effect :) anyway, thank you for the enjoyable read.

  18. I really enjoyed Holistic Harry. I am an animal researcher (PhD). I started out my career by studying the “whole” animal by studying behavior. There are so many challenges with confounding factors, observer bias and observer influence, that I had to consider studying the “machinery” or rather bits and pieces of the machinery. I study the immune system and how what we deem as “stressors” influences on the immune system. “Harry’ really should look into studying the Hypothalamopituitary adrenal axis in humans. Psychological stress (and phsychological acclimation to stressors) seems nearly impossible to study in animals, but is so fascinating in humans. This may not fully explain why the placebo affect works, but it sure helps provide insight!
    I stumbled upon this website because I study agriculture animals as well (I noticed thier is rhetoric from Food Inc in your hate mail posts). I am very curious as to what might explain why some people have such a strong belief system in thier diet that they become so hateful towards those who don’t eat the way they do. People can be worse than religious-fanatics about food and I used to live in the bible-belt. Thanks for all of the great information! I am looking forward to reading Health food junkies.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed Holistic Harry. You may be the first person who ever downloaded it from here and read it. I hope, at the very least, you found it amusing! (FYI, it’s quite semi-autobiographical)

      Steve B

      1. Hi Steve- there is someone close to me who I believe is suffering from orthorexia- and I am very concerned. I’m not sure what to do… We have talked many times but without much result. Is there anything you recommend to read? Any people you recommend for this person to speak with? Any information you have would be very much appreciated. Thanks.

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