Part I of In Defense of Food discusses the history and complexities of nutritionism, something that is hard to explain and even harder to understand. (And harder still to summarize. Seriously, buy the book). Behind the scenes, nutritional scientists have a lot of complex relationships and nutrients on their hands with no clear conclusions, but when we walk into a grocery store, it may seem like they’ve got it all figured out.
The history of “nutritionism” is an interesting one, and it is an -ism, an ideology, that we have accepted into our Western culture. There are many ideas from nutritionism that have created change in the way we eat, but the lipid hypothesis is unquestionably the most important.
The lipid hypothesis stated that the consumption of fat and cholesterol from meat and dairy products was causing chronic diseases. In response to this, the American Heart Association suggested Americans cut down on meat and dairy products in 1977. This wasn’t something that sat well with the red meat and dairy industries (go figure) so the committee was persuaded to change the suggestion to read: “choose meats/poultry/fish that will reduce saturated fat intake.”
This gave birth to the low-fat craze of the 80s and 90s. We were told to eat margarine instead of butter, and eat the same meat, except in leaner varieties. With the rewording, the intention had been skewed. You might be thinking, well, if saturated fat is a problem, what’s the problem with singling it out?
As it turns out, there isn’t any proof that dietary fat leads to heart disease, or that dietary cholesterol leads to cholesterol in our bodies. There is, however, proof that trans fats do worse things than saturated fats do, like raise bad cholesterol, lower good cholesterol, promote insulin resistance, increase triglycerides, and so on. It’s actually possible that animal fats were never the problem behind heart disease after all, and that the low-fat craze created more health problems than it prevented.
This focus on a nutrient as opposed to a whole food changed the way the U.S. government makes dietary guidelines. They no longer can advise that Americans eat less of something, for if they do, heads of that particular industry will urge them to change it. There’s a lot of money and politics involved in food, and it’s for this reason that we don’t hear about a lot of things that could benefit us.
Let’s revisit Pollan’s mantra: “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Not only is this not good for food production in general (eating less of any type of food means less money for those who make the food), it is also bad for food marketers and nutritionists who need to sell a different type of nutrient fortified in every food-like substance every year.
Food is complex, and the relationships between combinations of foods and nutrients inside of foods are far from being understood. Pollan uses this example: “The carbohydrates in a bagel will be absorbed more slowly if the bagel is spread with peanut butter; the fiber, fat, and protein in the peanut butter will cushion the insulin response, thereby blunting the impact of the carbohydrates” (Pollan, 66). We are sold high-fiber bagels, low-carb bagels, low-fat peanut butter, peanut butter substitutes, but I’m sure most people don’t even know about the kind of relationship that can happen between peanut butter and a bagel.
Food is made up of more variables than we can understand, and is created under a variety of circumstances. Being a nutrition scientist is hard, because there are barely any answers to the questions we have about our diet. Just remember this: You will never see health claims printed on a piece of fruit. The less packaging, labeling, and convincing a product has to do, the better it probably is for you to eat.
- When you go shopping, what “nutrients” catch your eye on foods? Is there anything you tend to look for when you buy food?
- Michael Pollan calls nutritionism an “ism,” an ideology. He says it’s more a way to think about food than a science. Do you agree?
- What kind of eating habits do you have? Do your habits align with the American Heart Association recommendations from 1977?
- What do you think is most important when looking at foods to buy? Do you look for specific ingredients, whether something was made with organic ingredients, where it was produced, etc.?