Dietary advice, nutritionism, and marketing

Michael Pollan discusses Americans’ dietary changes in the aftermath of the publication of the Dietary Goals for the United States:

For while it is true that Americans post-1977 did shift the balance in their diets from fats to carbs so that fat as a percentage of total calories in the diet declined (from 42 percent in 1977 to 34 percent in 1995), we never did in fact cut down on our total consumption of fat; we just ate more of other things…Basically what we did was heap a bunch more carbs onto our plate, obscuring but by no means replacing the expanding chunk of (now skinless white) animal protein sitting there in the middle.

How did that happen? I would submit that the ideology of nutritionism deserves as much of the blame as the carbohydrates themselves do–that and human nature. By framing dietary advice in terms of good and bad nutrients, and by burying the recommendation that we should eat less of any particular actual food, it was easy for the take-home message of the 1977 and 1982 dietary guidelines to be simplified as follows: Eat more low-fat foods. And that is precisely what we did. We’re always happy to receive a dispensation to eat more of something (with the possible exception of oat bran), and one of the things nutritionism reliably gives us is some such dispensation: low-fat cookies then, low-carb beer now. It’s hard to imagine the low-fat/high-carb craze taking off as it did or our collective health deteriorating to the extent that it has if McGovern’s original food-based recommendation had stood: Eat less meat and fewer dairy products. For how do you get from that stark counsel of the idea that another carton of Snackwell’s is just what the doctor ordered? (50-51)

I’m not convinced that Americans tried particularly hard to follow the low-fat dietary advice. After all, Pollan chronicled in The Omnivore’s Dilemma the rise of fast food over roughly the same period, even claiming that there’s no animal flesh in nature with as much fat as a chicken nugget.

My main point in writing, however, is to call into question Pollan’s argument that the focus on nutrients made it particularly easy for us to take dietary advice the wrong way. If McGovern’s original advice, to eat less meat and fewer dairy products, had stood, it could have been simplified to “Eat more dairy-free and meatless foods.” Nabisco could have given us dairy-free Snackwell’s (no doubt loaded with hydrogenated vegetable oils), and fast-food chains might have given us breaded vegetable protein instead of chicken nuggets. Thus, the idea that a focus on nutrients makes dietary advice particularly prone to co-optation by food companies is not nearly as obvious as Pollan would have us believe.

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