Michael Pollan, in a long article in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine,
writes about Nutritionism
In the case of nutritionism [an ideology], the widely shared but
unexamined assumption is that the key to understanding food is indeed
the nutrient. From this basic premise flow several others. Since
nutrients, as compared with foods, are invisible and therefore slightly
mysterious, it falls to the scientists (and to the journalists through
whom the scientists speak) to explain the hidden reality of foods to
us. To enter a world in which you dine on unseen nutrients, you need
lots of expert help.
Another potentially serious weakness of nutritionist ideology is that
it has trouble discerning qualitative distinctions between foods. So
fish, beef and chicken through the nutritionists’ lens become mere
delivery systems for varying quantities of fats and proteins and
whatever other nutrients are on their scope. Similarly, any qualitative
distinctions between processed foods and whole foods disappear when
your focus is on quantifying the nutrients they contain (or, more
precisely, the known nutrients).
But what about the elephant in the room — the Western diet? It might be
useful, in the midst of our deepening confusion about nutrition, to
review what we do know about diet and health. What we know is that
people who eat the way we do in America today suffer much higher rates
of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity than people eating more
traditional diets. (Four of the 10 leading killers in America are
linked to diet.) Further, we know that simply by moving to America,
people from nations with low rates of these “diseases of affluence”
will quickly acquire them. Nutritionism by and large takes the Western
diet as a given, seeking to moderate its most deleterious effects by
isolating the bad nutrients in it — things like fat, sugar, salt — and
encouraging the public and the food industry to limit them. But after
several decades of nutrient-based health advice, rates of cancer and
heart disease in the U.S. have declined only slightly (mortality from
heart disease is down since the ’50s, but this is mainly because of
improved treatment), and rates of obesity and diabetes have soared.
He concludes with some recommendations:
To medicalize the diet problem is of course perfectly consistent with
nutritionism. So what might a more ecological or cultural approach to
the problem recommend? How might we plot our escape from nutritionism
and, in turn, from the deleterious effects of the modern diet? ...
So try these few (flagrantly unscientific)
rules of thumb, collected in the course of my nutritional odyssey, and
see if they don’t at least point us in the right direction.
1. Eat food. Though in our current state of confusion, this is much
easier said than done. So try this: Don’t eat anything your
great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. (Sorry, but at this
point Moms are as confused as the rest of us, which is why we have to
go back a couple of generations, to a time before the advent of modern
food products.) There are a great many foodlike items in the
supermarket your ancestors wouldn’t recognize as food (Go-Gurt?
Breakfast-cereal bars? Nondairy creamer?); stay away from these.
2. Avoid even those food products that come bearing
health claims. ...
3. Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a)
unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number — or that
contain high-fructose corn syrup.None of these characteristics are
necessarily harmful in and of themselves, but all of them are reliable
markers for foods that have been highly processed.
4. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. You won’t find any
high-fructose corn syrup at the farmer’s market; you also won’t find
food harvested long ago and far away. What you will find are fresh
whole foods picked at the peak of nutritional quality. Precisely the
kind of food your great-great-grandmother would have recognized as
5. Pay more, eat less. The American food system has for a century
devoted its energies and policies to increasing quantity and reducing
price, not to improving quality. There’s no escaping the fact that
better food — measured by taste or nutritional quality (which often
correspond) — costs more, because it has been grown or raised less
intensively and with more care. ...
“Eat less” is the most unwelcome advice of all, but in fact the
scientific case for eating a lot less than we currently do is
compelling. “Calorie restriction” has repeatedly been shown to slow
aging in animals, and many researchers (including Walter Willett, the
Harvard epidemiologist) believe it offers the single strongest link
between diet and cancer prevention. ...
To make the “eat less” message a bit more palatable, consider
that quality may have a bearing on quantity: I don’t know about you,
but the better the quality of the food I eat, the less of it I need to
feel satisfied. All tomatoes are not created equal.
6. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves. Scientists may disagree on
what’s so good about plants — the antioxidants? Fiber? Omega-3s? — but
they do agree that they’re probably really good for you and certainly
can’t hurt. Also, by eating a plant-based diet, you’ll be consuming far
fewer calories, since plant foods (except seeds) are typically less
“energy dense” than the other things you might eat. Vegetarians are
healthier than carnivores, but near vegetarians (“flexitarians”) are as
healthy as vegetarians. Thomas Jefferson was on to something when he
advised treating meat more as a flavoring than a food.
7. Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the
Greeks. Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the
rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we
are. Any traditional diet will do: if it weren’t a healthy diet, the
people who follow it wouldn’t still be around. ...
In the case of the French paradox, it may not be the
dietary nutrients that keep the French healthy (lots of saturated fat
and alcohol?!) so much as the dietary habits: small portions, no
seconds or snacking, communal meals — and the serious pleasure taken in
eating. (Worrying about diet can’t possibly be good for you.) Let
culture be your guide, not science.
8. Cook. And if you can, plant a garden. To take part in the intricate
and endlessly interesting processes of providing for our sustenance is
the surest way to escape the culture of fast food and the values
implicit in it: that food should be cheap and easy; that food is fuel
and not communion. ...
9. Eat like an omnivore. Try to add new species, not just new foods, to
your diet. The greater the diversity of species you eat, the more
likely you are to cover all your nutritional bases. ...