Thursday, March 7, 2013

Nutritionism: Food is More Than the Sum of its Nutrients

In a nutshell, "nutritionism" is the idea that the healthfulness of a food is based on the sum of the nutrients it contains.  I learned about this concept from Michael Pollan, who you may have heard of... he wrote "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "In Defense of Food", both phenomenal books that I highly recommend.  Pollan makes the argument that this is a reductionist philosophy that assumes we know more about the composition of foods and the inner workings of the human body than we really do.  I couldn't agree more.

Take the carrot, for example... we all know carrots are good for us.  You've probably heard that they're high in beta carotene.  Well, when researchers have taken beta carotene out of the carrot and given it to people in pill form, it turns out it doesn't do jack shit.  Is beta carotene useless?  Or is it just useless outside the context of the food it comes from? Context matters.  We're not as smart as we think we are, and we don't have it all figured out.  Studying individual nutrients outside the context of a real food tells us very little about what we should eat, and sometimes it just makes things more confusing.  We don't eat nutrients, we eat food.

If we want to learn how eating a carrot affects our health, then we need to study carrots.  Yet, as obvious as that may sound, we don't often study nutrition in this way.  We study the nutrients on their own, and then decide whether a food is good or bad based on which nutrients it contains.  There are plenty of examples where this paradigm has led us astray... here are just a few.

Dairy Fat
Unless you're from Mars, it's been jammed down your throat that you should avoid butter and whole milk, and instead choose low-fat dairy products like skim milk (yuck) and low-fat cheese (double yuck).  Full-fat dairy products are high in saturated fat, saturated fat raises your cholesterol, and then you die of heart disease.  Ohh I never grow tired of hearing that one (**sarcasm**)!  In reality land though, people who eat more full-fat dairy have lower rates of heart disease and diabetes, and they sport better-looking cholesterol profiles (1).

So why are you told that butter kills you?  Because when you take saturated fatty acids out of the context of the foods they come from, isolate it in a liquid formula, and feed it to people, their cholesterol levels go up.  In real life, though, we don't drink palmitic acid from a beaker... it comes in a real food like cheese, along with other fats and lots of other shit we don't even know about yet.

Whole Grains
Whole grains are healthy, we all know that.  They're more nutrient-dense than refined grains, and they have more antioxidants too!  This is what Michelle Obama tells you.  What she doesn't tell you... is that whole grains, despite containing more vitamins and minerals, deplete your body of important minerals.  You may have heard of them... zinc, calcium, magnesium... some pretty important nutrients!  It's also been shown in controlled studies that whole grains, despite containing more antioxidants, do NOT increase your body's total antioxidant capacity!  For real (2, 3).  Nutritionism done set us down the wrong path.

Canola Oil
Ah canola oil... the dietitian's new darling oil.  It didn't explode onto the scene until 1998, but it has already become a staple oil in many American households (4).  And because it's high in oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat which lowers your cholesterol when you drink it out of a beaker, it's been touted as a healthy oil.  But consider how it's made...

I can't believe how perfectly this narration illustrates my point.  It really is just too good to be true!

Still think canola oil is healthy?  I don't care what anyone says, having a lot of monounsaturated fat doesn't change the fact that it looks like elephant poop in processing.  Nothing about this process is natural.  Plus, more and more canola seeds are genetically modified (5, 6).  I ain't messin' wit dat shit.

Don't get me wrong, nutritionism has its place.  Focusing on nutrients has gotten us to where we are today in nutritional science.  Learning about essential nutrients, for example, has allowed us to effectively feed someone through a tube or an IV in severe trauma.  And in all honesty, we can make a pretty good guess at the healthfulness of a food based on the nutrients it contains.

But we would be extremely arrogant to think that we fully understand food and its intimate relationship with our bodies.  Sometimes, you just have to trust real food.  You don't really believe that God put the fat in the milk to kill us do you (7)?


  1. That's a top find, Brendan. It's funny how they got someone with a nice voice to promote the stuff, but the process looks disgusting. With all that industrial machinery and chemicals being used the 'food' scientists have done a good job and the marketers even more. It's interesting to see the difference between the material mid-process (which, yes, does look like shit) and the final clear oil. I think if people saw this vid it might put a few off!
    Am likin' yer blog :)

  2. I like that concept of Nutritionism. There was once a time where I had loads of supplements that I thought would make me feel even better....and of course they didn't do shit. Granted, I still stick to a select few vitamins, but nothing replaces the content of nutrient dense foods. That's why I like the WAPF so much - nutrient density of natural foods is its primary mission