Navigation bar--use text links at bottom of page.

Instinctive Nutrition

by Severen Schaeffer
(1987) Celestial Arts, Berkeley, California.

Review by Kirt Nieft
Copyright © 1998 by Kirt Nieft. All rights reserved.
Contact author for permission to republish.

This was the first exposition of instincto theory and practice published in English. It is now back in print after a lapse and can be ordered from any bookstore.

First off, I must admit that this book is a sentimental favorite for me. I found it in an artsy-fartsy bookstore in Milwaukee as the first snow was falling about ten years ago--and it has screwed up my life ever since. ;-) I had made a comical journey from Herbalife (shiver) to Fit For Life to Natural Hygiene, becoming increasingly enamored with the idea of being all that I could be--in a non-military way, that is.

When I stumbled on Instinctive Nutrition it clicked. Here at last was some clear prose, some grand master hidden-design stuff, which Finally Explained It All. Without looking back, I started testing every raw food I could get in Milwaukee in the middle of winter for its taste-change. In a few short weeks my curiosity about raw animal foods overcame my queasiness and I started to eat them along with the "easier" fruits, nuts, veggies, and honeys.

A couple months into it, I started corresponding with the author and met with him for several hours on different occasions during a visit to France and the infamous Chateau de Montrame where instincto-therapy was practiced. My first inkling that something wasn't quite right was when he asked my wife and I if we would bring along some Skippy peanut butter (Chunky) and some Prell shampoo, since they were very hard to obtain in Paris at that time. Hmmm, I thought, Skippy peanut butter isn't exactly an original food, and why would an instincto even need any shampoo since instinctos are all completely odorless and natural, right? ;-) Later we met another instincto wannabe, a young woman from Minneapolis, who had made the mecca journey to Burger's Chateau outside of Paris. She told us that Severen had asked her to bring him some Snicker's bars. Perhaps this was his way of breaking the news that he wasn't exactly an instincto purist as one might surmise from the book. ;-)

Well, Severen picked us up at the airport outside of Paris and drove us out to Guy-Claude Burger's Chateau de Montrame where we were going to stay. If he wasn't practicing what he preached in his book, he was clearly eating up my compliments about his writing heartily. He was sporting a classic pot belly and stopped for a pack of cigarettes and a coffee on the way to the Chateau.

Anyway, I got the definite feeling he wasn't respected much by the French instincto community, for the basic reason that he wasn't willing (able?) to eat instincto. Further, many felt he didn't give Guy-Claude Burger his due in Instinctive Nutrition (whereas they forget that Guy-Claude never gives much credit to Natural Hygiene, which was taught in Paris and was not unknown at all--many of the instincto theories are N.H. verbatim, or a logical extension of them).

Severen expressed frustration that the Chateau instinctos were on his case about not being pure. He claimed that he didn't want it to become his whole life. Paraphrasing: "What, and live at the Chateau and have that be everything in my life?! That's not for me." Understand that Severen was a cafe sort of guy, a seriously capable intellectual. He was at his prime when bullshitting over coffee and a cigarette. He knew his health was going downhill and made his choices, like we all do.

At his apartment in Paris he showed me plans for an instincto center near Acapulco, Mexico. He had a file of a couple dozen Americans who had written him about his book and he spoke of how the whole project never worked like he thought it would. He spoke of the strange goings on at the Chateau. And he generally soaked up the attention of his number-one fan (me at the time) and flirted with my wife.

We would exchange an occasional letter in the years that followed. He was incredibly witty and likable. He never would have made it as a guru, but he did write a fine book and an entertaining, if brief, letter or three.

He died a few years later of congestive heart failure.

As for the merits of his book, they should be judged on their own. His training in General Semantics, and apparently native talent for clear thought, surely helped him to see that instinctos were onto something, and though the book seems very simply written he worked years on it. The simplicity is really clarity, in my opinion (check out the writing of Neil Postman to sample another writer well-versed in General Semantics). I can't imagine a better first book in English to be written by anyone else, instincto or not. He was, however, very taken aback when he learned that a couple of instinctos in Africa had trouble with malaria ("...and I wrote they wouldn't!").

The book more or less flopped, and his plans for an instincto center near Acapulco were never realized. (I understand he didn't much impress the folks he was talking to about this project at the Pottinger-Price foundation with his nicotine addiction. :-( ) Perhaps he would've shaped up if the book had led to something, but I doubt it. When it went backordered (as opposed to "out of print") he was even more bummed, but he had given it a good shot. He was the first to bring instincto, Primal, and General Semantics together, to see that there was something to them.

The book itself is simply organized and brief. As I look over it for the first time in a couple of years, I am struck again by its clarity. Indeed, when I had stumbled upon the book so many years ago, it was its style of writing that helped convince me there must be something grand in instincto. If someone could write (think!) so clearly, they must be feeding their brain correctly, no? ;-) After mucking my way through Herbert Shelton, Arnold Ehret, Morris Krok, etc., etc., it was a breath of fresh air to read some clear writing--writing that wasn't on a tirade, writing that had no chip on its shoulder. In short, writing that was the nonfiction equivalent of a Richard Brautigan novel, if that's not too esoteric for you. ;-)

The 223 pages of the exposition are divided into three roughly equal parts:

Part 1 ("The Human Instinct for Food") explores the taste-change and its relationship to the various methods of denaturation which foods are put to. Included is the obligatory summary of Pottinger's Cats and a nod to Herbert Shelton.

Part 2 ("Food, Health, and Illness") explores the relationship of nutrition to specific ailments such as cancer, allergies, and autoimmune disorders.

Part 3 ("Doing It Yourself") details how one could go about eating instincto. There are sample "meal plans" which detail a procedure to test lots of different raw foods on a daily basis. There is a listing of some commonly available foods which could be eaten instinctively, and some shopping tips.

Of course, these days, with a more seasoned eye, I can see beyond the clear writing. ;-) Take away the clarity, and the book is little different than all the other fringe-diet and disease books. Lots of talk and no proof. Lots of ideas which sound really cool, and apologies for a lack of scientific support because, well, you see, this is all so cutting-edge that science will take years to catch up with us. ;-) It turns the established paradigm on its head while providing plenty of anecdotal evidence to support itself. It is an infomercial for intellectuals. ;-)

To get personal again, what proved so influential to me way back when, was that I was already getting taste-changes on particular fruits before I read the instincto explanation. I would bring a pineapple to work and expect to eat it for lunch. Some days I did with great pleasure. Some days it bit me back! I figured it was some nasty fungicide or something. But after reading Mr. Schaeffer's book I tested most every raw food I could get my hands on, and dadgummit, I found the stop in every one (except for avocados ;-) ), having a hoot pigging out along the way. ;-)

Given the ambivalent track record of today's instincto purists, Instinctive Nutrition is very overstated. The horn was tooted way too loudly, way too surely. Severen realized this in a couple of years as the long-term results rolled in.

Many French instinctos like to berate the book as nothing more than their own ideas stolen into English without having been given any credit. Hmmm... well, that's pretty much the case, I guess, but with this book presentation is everything. Like the best of fringe-diet writing, Instinctive Nutrition puts its best foot forward and alienates no one. It summarizes a new paradigm of nutrition and does so in a classy way.

If it is overstated (and it is), one can almost see it in historical perspective: In the early days of instincto the results were less ambivalent. There was very little long-term experience and some pretty remarkable disease remissions (albeit not well-documented). These guys thought they were onto a truly earth-shattering discovery.

If it is undocumented (and it is), at least it is written with a certain amount of humility. While the book does (unfortunately, in retrospect) promote the hard edge of instincto lore with full surety (i.e., that only absolutely undenatured food shows a taste-change; assurances of superhuman health for instinctos; etc.), much of the rest of the writing is so obviously "humble" with its use of qualifiers (may, might, etc.) that it still stands as an example of what most other fringe nutrition books aren't: carefully chosen and un-angry words which can be read without joining a cult. ;-)

Instinctive Nutrition is no more than an introduction to instincto--an introduction which has become quite dated in the decade which has passed since it was published. I wonder sometimes what the book would look like if Severen had had a chance to do an updated second version ten years later. Since he wasn't really all that into the ideology of instincto, he would've been the perfect fellow to fashion an update.

Perhaps he might even have tolerated an insubordinate review like this one.

--Kirt Nieft

Before writing to Beyond Veg contributors, please be aware of our
email policy about what types of email we can and cannot respond to.

Back to Instincto and RAF Book Reviews
Back to Re-Examining Instinctive Eating

   Beyond Veg home   |   Feedback   |   Links