Nutritionism: What Is It and Why Is It Ruining Our Diet?

By Mike Howard

If you haven’t yet read Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food, An Eaters Manifesto” – I highly recommend it. In my opinion it is one of the most important books written on diet and nutrition.

  • Nutritionism is an ideology that maintains that the value of food is in its nutrients and not in the food itself. In other words, food is seen as a delivery system for nutrients – rather than as a whole.
  • Nutritionism needs an enemy – a specific enemy… specific enough that it does not ruffle the feathers of major food industries. Henceforth, in a monumental 1977 congressional session, it was determined that saturated fat was the enemy. Although studies had concluded that cutting back on dairy and meat might be a good recommendation, lobbyists representing beef and dairy industries would never allow it.
  • Nutritionism is reductionism – it organizes giant pieces of life and experience under a set of shared but unexamined assumptions. As an example, fruits and vegetables are protective, but it’s framed as though it’s the vitamin C in foods responsible for the protection.
  • Some of the most telling results of nutritionism are; formula and margarine.
  • Nutritionism is dualist: We seem to need a nutritional “good guy” and “bad guy”. With fats, omega-3’s seem to fit the role of the former, with trans fats occupying the role of the latter.
  • Nutritionism’s 3 main culprits: Nutritional science, big food companies and media. Nutritional science is in a constant scramble in trying to isolate protective nutrients from foods. Big food is trying desperately to turn junk food into health food by adding nutrients, eliminating trans fats and performing other such tinkering. The media sniffs out potentially eye-catching stories while spinning many uneventful findings into shocking new developments.
  • Governments and other health organizations are also culpable in the age of nutritionism as they allow questionably healthy products to bear health labels. Witness the irony of cereals such as Cocoa Puffs screaming of whole grain goodness while the vegetables sit as silent as stroke victims.
  • Food manufacturers who made “like products” used to have to label their products as “imitation”.
  • The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition is it takes the nutrient out of the context of the food, the food out of the context of the diet and the diet out of the context of the lifestyle (Marion Nestle).

Food is a bevy of compounds that exist in an intricate and dynamic and symbiotic relationship to one another. It is therefore futile to try and ferret out healthy compounds and appears not to benefit the health of the public. Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

Try not to stress out over the minutiae of diet and enjoy the food you eat.

7 Comments

  1. Gabe C.

    In regards to Quito’s comment, I think that the “stroke victim” simile was brilliantly thought up but poorly executed. The notion behind it is spot on for what Pollan wanted to make an example of but, as you mention, it is offensive to friends or relatives of stroke victims, the victims themselves, and their sympathizers. It’s unfortunate that he chose to use such a term seemingly without caution as well as without much thought (as stroke victims are usually not stereotyped as being silent anyway). Perhaps “sit as silent as Buddhist monks” would be more appropriate and far less offensive. Despite the fact that of course not all Buddhist monks are silent, the revision would still be less offensive and no less accurate than Pollan’s original remark.

    Reply
  2. Mike H.

    Hi Quito,

    I concur with your sentiments regarding the epiphany when reading about nutritionism. Pollan certainly drives the point home in a very thoughtful way. Like you said, an outsider often has the most unbiased and lucid perspective on things.

    In regards to the “stroke victim” comment. Yikes, I didn’t think of the impact of such a comparison. Thank you for pointing out the flaws of it. It was a direct quote from the book that I didn’t give much thought to when deciding to use it here.

    Reply
  3. Quito

    I remember very well the first time I read his argument about nutiritionism – it was so obviously true, but I had never thought of it. I had to put the book down and think. I guess that’s what all epiphanies are like…

    This is a bit unrelated… but I’ve been struck at how effective Pollan has been with his writing. He’s not a scientist – he’s a journalist. Being a (very intelligent) outsider seems to have worked very much in his favor.

    I also want to nominate this blog entry for the 2008 award for worst simile: Witness the irony of cereals such as Cocoa Puffs screaming of whole grain goodness while the vegetables sit as silent as stroke victims. Um. I have a few friends who are stroke victims. They’re incapacitated – one severely so – but they’re not silent or passive. They struggle and fight.

    Reply
  4. Spectra

    I agree with Scott and Mike OD…eat real food! Most problems that are food-related are correlated with eating a lot of highly processed foods that have added sugar, fat and have been stripped of much of their nutritional value. I grew up eating very few convenience/processed foods (mostly because my dad refused to buy them because they were “overpriced”) and I’m glad that I never really acquired a taste for them. I still eat very few convenience foods and I get most of my nutrition from vegetables, fruit, whole grains, milk/cheese/yogurt, lean meats, eggs, and nuts. I figure, if people have been eating it for more than about 200 years, it’s probably pretty OK to eat. Of course, there are some exceptions, but for the most part I eat basically whole food. I also think that alcoholic drinks, in moderation, are good to eat as well…I figure, if Jesus ate it/drank it, it can’t be too bad. After all, God wouldn’t eat anything He didn’t approve of, right?

    Reply
  5. Mike OD - Fitness Spotlight

    Like Scott said above…eat real foods…you know, the ones that were around 1000s of years ago…and you don’t have to worry about all the other things that are such a big issue nowadays like trans fats….because those are man made in the last 20 years! Is it really so shocking that things made in a package are not designed for optimal health inside our body…and that a corporation will package and label anything as healthy as long as it is cheap to make and sells more?

    Reply
  6. monica

    I haven’t read In Defense of Food but I’ve read all the discussion about nutritionism – it’s so true. Like Scott said, different civilizations have thrived on different food habits. The difference is not only in their consumption of “real food”, but these civilizations had a food CULTURE that America fundamentally lacks. The Omnivore’s Dilemma outlined this very well.

    When I was growing up, my family’s food culture involved jello, pre-packaged cheese slices, wonder bread, and mac & cheese. It must have gone through dozens of changes until it ended up where it is today, which I regret to say isn’t free from its own degree of nutritionism (pardon me while I sprinkle some ground flax seed on my yogurt, brimming with live active cultures!). Where will it be ten years from now? And are we doomed to repeat this endless cycle of experimentation, fads and fears? It often seems so: we don’t have a tried and true culture to fall back on. But maybe if we do what Pollan suggests – eat food, not too much, mostly plants – maybe a new tradition of whole food will stick. Imagine, eating food without fear, wonderment, and over-analysis of its individual components. Imagine not being plagued by the omnivore’s dilemma. To me, that’s the appeal of whole foods: I know exactly what I’m eating so I can forget all of this nutritionism malarkay, eat my beans and rice, and enjoy it. Eating for pleasure! What a concept!

    Reply
  7. Scott Kustes - Modern Forager

    This was a pretty decent book, though not as good as The Omnivore’s Dilemma. But Pollan’s discussion of Nutritionism was spot-on. People get all in a tizzy over GI and GL and saturated fat and polyunsaturated fat and yadda yadda ad nauseum. It boils down to eating real food. Civilizations have thrived on low-carb, high-fat diets and civilizations have thrived on high-carb, low-fat diets. Some include milk, some include animal blood, almost all include meat of some sort, some are mostly vegetarian, some are mostly carnivorous. The bottom line is that they all EAT REAL FOOD. Few of them include much in the way of processed sugars and grains, and when they do, their health deteriorates.

    Meat, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and a few starchy roots is the path to real health.

    Cheers
    Scott Kustes
    Modern Forager

    Reply