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Nutritionism: The Culture of Experts

by Andy Gricevich, Newsletter Writer

A BRIEF HISTORY OF DIETARY ANXIETY

Back in the old days—from 300,000 B.C. or so until about 70 years ago—we learned how to eat from our communities. Family members taught us what to hunt and gather and how to use it, and we shared meals with the people around us, sometimes in special seasonal celebrations. Around 12,000 years back, the establishment of grain-based agriculture drastically reduced the diversity of our diet. Nonetheless, we kept eating from gardens, orchards, pastures, rivers and oceans, and regional food traditions developed everywhere, passing down knowledge about how to prepare, combine and preserve food.

After World War II, big agriculture and the food industry exploded. Industrial-scale processing and the new interstate highways broke through the limits of region. Whole foods were transformed into packaged products with longer shelf lives. The corn, soy, sugar and wheat industries pushed the federal government to promote their commodities, leading both to subsidies for those crops (making them cheap and easy to incorporate into processed foods) and to the creation of the “food pyramid” many of us grew up with. At the same time, the postwar economy set in motion a shift away from home-cooked, communal meals and toward TV dinners and ordering out. Over the course of only one generation, many of our culinary traditions were lost.

Here we are in the 21st century, on the other side of that gap. We’ve figured out that an industrial diet isn’t so good for us. In an environment of unprecedented toxicity and rampant food allergies, we want to eat in ways that promote health, but we lack the guidance of a strong food culture. We feel that there must be a “right” way to eat (almost as a moral imperative), but it’s hard to sort it out in the face of the dizzying array of products, trends and fads that surround us. For help, we turn to specialists: dietitians, doctors, nutritional scientists and trusted food companies. While their recommendations may change and vary, these experts generally share an underlying perspective on nutrition—a set of assumptions that seem so obvious to most of us that we’re barely aware of them.

NUTRITIONISM

The modern study of nutrition works in the way most laboratory science does: by breaking things down to their basic components, isolating them, and performing controlled experiments to draw conclusions. When it comes to food, specific nutrients (vitamins, fats, minerals, etc.) are tested to determine how they interact with specific bodily systems. It’s not impossible for scientists to zoom back out and ask about more complex interactions—but the elegance and simplicity of the most basic elements is seductive, though, and our dominant scientific culture (especially as popularly understood) tends strongly toward reductionism. We feel that the truth lies in the most whittled-down, directly measurable and quantifiable data.

When the explanatory methods of reductionist science get applied to the production and consumption of food, we have a culture of “nutritionism.” That term came to some prominence a handful of years back via Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food, where he borrowed it from the work of Dr. Gyorgy Scrinis. Nutritionism treats foods as vehicles for particular nutrients, which are judged “good” or “bad” on the basis of their effects on the human body. There’s no distinction between the sources of these elements; a nutrient’s a nutrient, in a jackfruit or a gel-cap.

Nutritionism sits well with mainstream medical culture, based on a model of the body as malfunctioning, and in need of pharmaceutical cures. Similarly, many dietary experts prescribe or produce the nutrient compounds they believe will cure our ills. We’ve internalized the medical model of nutritionism; if we hear that raspberry ketones burn fat, and we want to lose weight, we buy raspberries every time we shop—or take a daily dose of a ketone extract, without differentiating between the two, or considering what other foods might help us meet our goal. If we want a healthy diet designed for us, nutritional consultants can interview us, look at some data, and give us a personalized, scientific meal plan. We can shop and eat based on simple solutions to our problems, without the burden of choice.

Nutritionist thinking feels rational, comforting and solid. It breaks things down into language we can understand, and gives us tools for addressing particular health challenges. It also makes it easy for food scientists to design new products and supplements. If we need more vitamin D, we can add it to milk; our favorite corn chips can be enhanced with omega-3s or probiotic seasoning formulas. Food scientists can zero in on widespread nutritional deficiencies; they can synthesize antioxidants to target the health issues that come with exposure to toxic chemicals in our everyday environment; they can remove components of foods thought to be harmful. It’s a direct, simple, targeted way to meet (and create) the demands of the food market.

DANGERS OF NUTRITIONISM

The nutritionist view feels empowering—but is the advice we get always reliable? It’s easy to forget that scientists make mistakes, missing factors or attributing an effect to the wrong cause. In itself, that’s no problem; critical review and revision are central to the scientific method. When nutritional science makes its way into the food market, though, mistakes can have serious consequences. Remember the opinion—still widespread—that margarine is better than butter? It took a long time for scientists to acknowledge that hydrogenated fats are bad for us, longer for that knowledge to filter into popular culture, and even longer for us to hear about how important naturally occurring fats are for our health. (Actually, margarine isn’t the best example; its promotion involved heavy lobbying and economic pressure on the FDA, and that’s not too unusual in the food industry. Money can indeed corrupt science).

Honest reductionist thinking still tends to downplay complexity, assuming that whole systems can be explained by their basic elements, even when the interactions of those elements aren’t yet well understood. In whole foods, one nutrient—like fiber or fat—might be necessary in order for our bodies to absorb an essential vitamin found in that food. That vitamin might only be accessible when the food is prepared in a certain way. A nutrient might also interact with different bodily systems in different ways, and its path to one part of the body or another might be determined, in part, by the way it’s ingested. Ignoring the natural interactions between nutrients can lead to products and dietary choices that fail to meet our needs.

It can also be potentially harmful. We evolved eating a varied, seasonal diet, and the plants and animals we ate evolved along with us through our selection and management. We’re set up to thrive on a changing diversity of micronutrients, antioxidants and phytochemicals, not to eat only a few things all the time. Most edible plants are “superfoods” to some degree, and they also contain mild toxins; in fact, many essential nutrients are toxic in too large a concentration. When we eat seasonally, our bodies have the opportunity to achieve balance, purifying themselves of what’s accumulated over recent months while taking in what’s been in short supply. It’s possible that eating the same things year-round can hamper our ability to process them beneficially, leading to food allergies. Seasonality works to our advantage in other ways, too; for example, the berries ripening in summer are high in compounds that protect our skin from the sun, and those compounds aren’t as necessary in the winter. The pharmaceutical model of nutrition, at its extreme, tends to ignore our natural balance and rhythm.

There’s one more potentially unhealthy effect of nutritionism: rather than alleviating anxiety, it often increases it. Data and recommendations change all the time, and the field of choices grows and shifts almost constantly. Do we go for a diet that’s nutrient-based (low-carb, alkaline), food-based (paleo, vegan, juice), medical (the cancer diet), or cultural (the Mediterranean diet)? What are the highest priorities? Do we have to stop eating what we enjoy, or just change our portions? Every day we’re told that one compound can heal us, while another can kill us. This confusion and uncertainty can’t be good for our stress levels—and stress, so the experts tell us, is a serious killer.

EMPOWERMENT

Treating foods and bodies in terms of their smallest components creates opportunities not only for food scientists and researchers, but for marketing experts. The more quantified our eating becomes, the more our bodies themselves can be turned into statistical data, locations of potential profit. This process both supports and depends on the restricted role of eating in standardized culture, in which nourishment tends to get treated as one of our many daily tasks. It’s like the exercise we get in specialized, intensive bursts, rather than from varied movement throughout the day. Compartmentalization doesn’t account for the role of one kind of activity within the context of a whole life. The same lifestyle responsible for many modern ailments also makes us feel less capable of understanding what we need for good health—thus our dependence on the culture of experts.

Since most of us are stuck with that lifestyle, how can we empower ourselves as eaters, without anxiety and constant homework? It might be largely a matter of a shift in perspective. Instead of seeing our bodies as problems to be solved, we could see them as intrinsically tending toward health, and make our goal an enjoyable diet that makes us feel good. We can consciously use expert knowledge; less reductionist nutritionists have studied the ways traditional diets are put together, as well as the lifestyle and health patterns that go with those food cultures. They’ve looked at the way our distant ancestors ate, in order to understand the needs and capacities of the human animal, and they generally agree on at least the basic principles: we’re best off eating whole foods (especially plants), with plenty of variety, in quantities just large enough to satiate us, ideally in the context of a physically active life. From there, we can start to figure out our own individual needs.

There will still be challenges, of course. Many of us have developed food allergies or other health problems stemming from the ways we’ve eaten already, and it isn’t always possible to determine whether they can be reversed. Many of the rest of us are so used to an industrial diet that we take the ways we feel for granted. Even the best expert advice can only go so far if we don’t get back in tune with our bodies, and there’s a range of strategies available to help us do that. Consultants often recommend various “elimination diets,” in which a number of foods are taken off the menu, then reintroduced methodically to see how we respond to them. Elimination diets are typically prescribed to diagnose allergies, but can also help us learn to pay attention to how we feel when we eat well.

Alternatively, we can go in the opposite direction, and begin eating more foods, focusing on variety and quality. That’s what I did during a couple of years of basing my diet around a local, organic vegetable CSA (community-supported agriculture) share, and, ever since, I’ve felt like I know exactly what I need at any given time. Even though I wasn’t a purist about my diet, and maintained a modest collection of bad habits, eating a variety of healthy foods in season got me back in tune with my body, so that I could tell what foods made me feel better and worse just by feeling. Today I have fun eating whatever I want (largely from the Willy Street Co-op’s Produce, Bulk, Dairy and Meat departments), and I crave nourishing food in season.

The point of that story isn’t that I have the perfect diet, nor the best way of becoming conscious of my needs. There are many paths to finding the right diet for you. Though we all share the most basic nutritional requirements, everyone’s a little different, and I’m not qualified to tell you how to eat. You are! You may have particular issues that require the help of experts or nutritionally targeted products, but any of us can get in touch with our own needs—and we can probably do it best by exploring, trying things out, and enjoying eating. We’re humans before we’re patients or consumers. Like our hunter-gatherer forebears, and like the originators of the world’s great food traditions, most of us can have a splendidly healthy diet without even knowing what a nutrient is. The knowledge we do have is icing on the cake. Let’s eat cake! And if you do work with a nutritionist, make sure they keep your whole body and all aspects of your diet and activities in mine, like our exclusive nutritional consultant Katy Wallace.
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