The Rise of Nutritionism

Eat Food, mostly plants not too much. Some of you will recognise those seven words. They are from Michael Pollan’s seminal work In Defence of Food. I have read this book twice. Once a few years ago when it made an impression and again this month when the wisdom of the words hit home – nutritionism is bad for us.

Foraged wild mushrooms

The Rise of Nutritionism

Long ago, almost back in the dark ages of the 1980s, I studied Food Technology which included units on human nutrition. I like to think I have a firm understanding of what constitutes a good diet. I try and eat healthfully most days. I work at keeping my gut bugs happy. On the second read of Pollan’s book, I realise that I have fallen into the clutches of “nutritionism”. Pollan defines nutritionism as treating food as separate nutrients rather than looking at food as a synergistic whole. The term was coined by an Australian Gygory Scrinis in the early 2000s. 

Nutritionism means we look at carbohydrates and fats, and proteins as separate entities. Food is no longer a  joyful community experience but merely a vehicle to deliver macro and micronutrients. If we tweak one, we can increase our health. He cites the “lipid hypothesis” as an example. Studies showed that people who ate saturated fat had a higher risk of heart disease. Hence, we became obsessed with saturated fat and avoided it at all costs. Butter was bad, and margarine was best! Then as more studies were done on margarine eaters, it was found that the trans-fats in margarine (a by-product of turning liquid oils into solid margarine)  were worse than the fats in butter! They really did cause cancer. They think… perhaps…

Even now, many studies are inconclusive because they look at the very small picture rather than the wider view. 

Butter is back on the table, but sweeteners are out!

A similar story is playing out today with artificial sweeteners. Once thought the answer to our prayers by making food sweet without the calories, the WHO is now recommending that we steer well clear of them. Their report, released in May 2023, states

The recommendation (to avoid non-sugar sweeteners) is based on the findings of a systematic review of the available evidence which suggests that use of NSS does not confer any long-term benefit in reducing body fat in adults or children. Results of the review also suggest that there may be potential undesirable effects from long-term use of NSS, such as an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and mortality in adults.

World Health Organisation

Eat Food

That is food that our great-grandparents would have recognised as food. Minimally processed, without numbers in the ingredients list, preferably home-cooked and home-grown. Polan advises us to stay out of the middle aisles of the supermarket, where the packaged and processed food lurks, and stick to the perimeter where the fresh produce tends to be.

Anything with a health claim on a printed label should be exorcised from your pantry or fridge. He recommends, where possible, you don’t shop at a supermarket at all but rather at farmers’ markets or the old-fashioned greengrocer because they are less likely to sell you processed food. If you can – grow your own. 

It’s not just your health that should be in the spotlight but the health of our community and the planet. The industrialisation of food has led to massive monoculture farms that must be sprayed to control pests and fertilised to replace the goodness normally found in “natural” soil. The soil on broadacre farms is dead  (or at least very sick) without a worm in sight!  Further, Big Food like Big Pharma might spruke health claims and appear to be concerned about our health, but really all they are interested in is making money. 

Mostly plants

The eating of animals raises two big ideas. Firstly,  the claim that a diet based mostly on plant foods is healthier, and secondly, the moral issues around the treatment of animals in an industrial food system. Pollan uses examples of populations who still eat a traditional plant-heavy diet, such as the famous “Mediterranean diet” or the traditional Japanese diet. These people are, by and large, much healthier than those who have embraced a “Western diet”. The “Western diet”, which relies on highly processed foods and lots of animal products, causes Western diseases, particularly Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Anthropological studies have shown that these diseases snap at the heels of the arrival of the Western way of eating.

Plant foods are also cheaper and have a lower ecological impact. Cow farts cause climate change.

Not too much.

Pollan says we should eat like the French. French people, he says, don’t count calories. They are unconcerned about the type of fat in their food – and only worry about the taste.  They tend not to eat in the car in a rush or without thought. They cook meals with care. They take longer to eat their food and they stop when they are full. Food is a joyful sensory experience that comes with a glass of wine – not a bucket of protein with a litre of soft drink. 

Read the book.

I highly recommend you read this book, Pollan has so much more to say about the hijacking of a food system for profit. Up till now, I have mostly shopped at the supermarket because it’s easy and cheap(er). But from now on, I am going to make it a priority to eat food without packaging and numbers. Of course, I won’t always be able to do this. The required infrastructures are no longer in place. Big cities have made us dependent on other people to grow our food. Home cooked and home grown meals will only happen if there is a fairer distribution of labour in the family home and it becomes everyone’s job to source and cook food. Advanced capitalism has meant we have to go and earn money (mostly) away from our own homes. I can’t just go out and milk my own cow! (But I could have chooks!) In Defence of Food opened my eyes to more that just health but the problems with a society that favours money over planet.

One small step…

As a first step, I have already ordered my first organic veggie box from a small local company that sources their veggies from small local farmers. Yes, it’s more expensive than Woollies or Coles but I feel like it’s a form of activism, and it’s making me feel just that little bit subversive!

Viva la (Food) Revolution! 

2 thoughts on “The Rise of Nutritionism

    1. Thank you! Yes, I went out with a friend who forages for them regularly when they are in the season. I have to admit I was not overly impressed! Just tasted like mushrooms! 🙂

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