Saturday, September 28, 2013

Nutritionism - What Is It and Why Does It Matter (In Defense of Food review Part I)

On the cover of In Defense of Food there is a picture of a head of pretty lettuce (red leaf lettuce not
iceberg) and on the band that most grocery stores have around their heads of lettuce it reads not the plu number but "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants." Right away this book has my attention. (And maybe my heart.)

Before selecting this book, I was already very familiar with the author, Michael Pollan. I had recently read The Omnivore's Dilemma and really enjoyed his writing and the way in which he approached his research on food -- with four meals he sought out to represent conventional farming, organic farming, small sustainable family farming and foraging. It was written very well and left me waking my husband at one in the morning to just share one more thing I learned about corn (both fascinating and disgusting all at the same time...)

This book takes a different approach. And I am so into it that I am going to review each of it's three parts. (If that works out while I am reading. Flexibility and going with the flow -- they are on my personal goals list for this year.) So far so good. The first section is so full of information and fits in with what I have been thinking about for the last few months -- eating real food and not edible food like substances. And how focusing on "nutritionism" is what has lead us down this path in the first place.

So what is nutritionism?

According to Pollan, nutritionism is the focus on nutrients, not food. This term and idea first appeared in an essay called "Sorry Marge" written by Australian sociologist of science, Gyorgy Scrinis. The paper focusing on margarine and how it should be the "ultimate nutrionist product, able to shift its identity...depending on the prevailing winds of dietary opinion" (27). Or why in theory a bowl of fortified Lucky Charms, packed with all the vitamins we "need" should be healthier than an apple that only has some of the vitamins.  The ideology behind nutritionism is:
  • "[W]hat matters most is not the food but the "nutrient"
  • "[B]ecause nutrients are invisible and incomprehensible to everyone but scientists, we need expert help in deciding what to eat"
  • "[T]he purpose of eating is to promote a narrow concept of physical health" (8).
This totally sounds like what we believe health to be (and what is promoted constantly!) Make sure you get x grams of protein a day and not go over x grams of cholesterol. Oh wait there is a difference between bad cholesterol not good cholesterol so make sure you eat enough good cholesterol to keep the bad down. And we should only consume x amount of calories and fat grams because fat is bad. Just kidding healthy fat isn't bad and it is actually essential to our diets and metabolism.

No wonder we are so confused about what to eat! It changes constantly. Pollan continues on to point out that this is why nutritionism is extremely flawed. He talks about how nutrients were discovered and which nutrients were deemed good and bad by scientists which then leads to vitamins and why they were deemed so important to our diets -- and how "it wasn't until late in the twentieth century that nutrients began to push food aside in the popular imagination of what to eat" (22).

Enter the dietary guidelines we are familiar with today. These didn't exist prior to the 70's. People didn't need to be told what to eat by scientists. Now we are being told what we should be eating and we are unhealthier than we have ever been.

Pollan quotes Joan Gussow, a Columbia University nutritionist who "argued agains the focus on nutrients rather than whole foods. 'The really important message in the epidemiology...was that some vegetables and citrus fruits seem to be protective agains cancer. But those sections of the [National Academy of Sciences report, Diet Nutrition and Cancer] were written as though it was the vitamin C in the citrus or the beta-carotene in the vegetables that was responsible for the effect...[H]ow do you know it's not one of the other things in the carrots or the broccoli? There are hundreds of carotenes'" (26).

That's a really crazy question -- especially when we have been taught from the time we were small to eat our oranges because of the vitamin C or to up our intake of vitamin C when we feel a cold coming on.

Pollan also talks about how focusing on the nutrients started (and when) and how it has really benefited the food industry. He explains other problems and pokes holes in the idea that nutrients should drive our diets as opposed to real food.

So has all of our focus on nutrients led us down the wrong path? Should we not worry so much about getting x grams of protein? I think no one knows for sure, but what we are being taught about food and nutrition isn't working. So I believe it is at least worth a conversation.

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