Posts Tagged nutritionism

Mike Gibney critiques “In Defense of Food”

In my dissection of In Defense of Food (which, by the way, hasn’t been forgotten, merely badly neglected for another project that has been eating up my time), I’ve tended to be conservative with my criticism. The reason for this is that I’m not an expert on the subject matter. I’m just some guy with an internet connection and access to a good academic library. While I consider myself qualified enough to point out when a document doesn’t say what Michael Pollan claims it does or make general comments on the nature of scientific inquiry, more nuanced points about the particulars of nutrition science are beyond me. So for the most part, I don’t engage in that kind of debate.

However, Dr. Mike Gibney is an experienced nutrition researcher, and he has just posted a criticism of In Defense of Food on his blog. He hits hard, arguing that the book is “peppered with half-truths, circular arguments and highly selective supporting material,” and he has far more authority than I could ever claim. Here’s an excerpt:

Pollen’s belief that health is the driver of food choice in the modern era is a cornerstone of his argument. Take for example the statement he makes: “That eating should be foremost about bodily health is a relatively new, and I think, destructive idea”.  As I pointed out in my blog of April 2nd, the interest in healthy eating is as old as civilisation and this obsession is the pursuit of a relatively minor section of society[1]. The vast majority chooses food that they plan to enjoy and, in making those choices, take care to get some level of balance as regards to their personal health. Every study that has examined the drivers of food choice have come away with the conclusion that the “go – no go” part of food choice is whether the consumer likes the food.  Pollan’s assumption that it is the pursuit of health that drives food choice is an opinion based his personal reflections and observations. However, our own research, published in peer-reviewed journals shows the opposite. In a survey of over 14,000 consumers across the EU, some 71% either ‘agreed strongly’ or ‘agreed’ with the statement: “I do not need to make changes to my diet as my diet is already healthy enough”.  Figure that Mr Pollan!

The putative obsession with food and health of modern consumers that Pollan puts forward arises from the dogmatism and doctrine, which he calls “nutritionism”. He argues that nutrition has reduced the food and health issue to nutrients. In his view, nutritionists see foods solely as purveyors of nutrients and summarises their view thus: “Foods are essentially the sum of their nutrient parts”.  He quotes his fellow food saviour and author Marion Nestle who says of nutrition: “…it takes the nutrient out of the food, the food out of the diet and the diet out of the lifestyle”. Eloquent, but utter baloney! This needs to rebutted along several lines. In 1996, I chaired a joint WHO-FAO committee that issued a report entitled “Preparation and use of food-based dietary guidelines”. The notion behind this was that many developing countries did not have detailed data on the nutrient content of their food supply, that they didn’t have nutritional surveys and that we should encourage the development of healthy eating advice in terms that consumers can understand. Indeed, statistical techniques such as cluster analysis are widely used to study food intake patterns and moreover, there are many examples of systems that score food choice for their nutritional quality. To write a book based on the impression that nutritionist see foods solely in terms of nutrients is simply daft.

I highly recommend reading the whole piece.

Finally, I owe a hat tip to Colby Vorland, who tweeted the piece yesterday.


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Does nutritionism preclude pleasurable eating?

March 3, 2012 at 10:52 am · Filed under In Defense of Food ·Tagged , , ,

Michael Pollan devotes a chapter of In Defense of Food to defining the notion of “nutritionism,” which we’re to distinguish from nutrition. Whereas the latter is a scientific discipline, the professor of journalism explains, “As the ‘-ism’ suggests, [nutritionism] is not a scientific subject but an ideology.” This ideology rests on the premise that “Foods are essentially the sum of their nutrient parts” and several other premises which flow from this first one.

Pollan argues that because we can’t see nutrients, in the nutritionist view, “it falls to scientists…to explain the hidden reality of foods to us. In form this is a quasireligious idea, suggesting the visible world is not the one that really matters, which implies the need for a priesthood.” The references to religion are a bit odd, given that Pollan will later take nutrition science to task for changing its mind. More importantly, though, the need for expert help doesn’t arise so much from the focus on nutrients as the decision to care about the health consequences of our dietary choices. If I wanted to know whether white rice or brown rice would make for a healthier meal, I suppose I could get all my friends together, assign half of them to eat white rice and half to eat brown rice and then record their health outcomes over the course of the next few years. No experts required! Of course, that would take a long time, I’d probably have a pretty small sample size, and people would stop being friends with me. So I’d prefer to direct the question to the “priesthood,” even though I’d be thinking about foods, which (unlike nutrients) I can see.

Another assumption of nutritionism, he explains, is “that the whole point of eating is to maintain and promote bodily health.” Perhaps this follows if we interpret his definition of nutritionism in the most literal sense, but I would bet that only a tiny minority of people who think about nutrition in terms of nutrients actually believe that we can understand everything there is to know about a food by studying its constituent nutrients. Some might believe that we can understand the relationship between diet and disease in terms of the nutrients, but that doesn’t mean they can’t also see a place for less healthful foods in the diet now and then, perhaps for reasons of culture or pleasure.

Pollan further argues, “It follows from the premise that food is foremost about physical health that the nutrients in food should be divided into the healthy ones and the unhealthy ones–good nutrients and bad.” This is another consequence that doesn’t really follow. Though Pollan has criticized the campaign to reduce fat intake, you’d be hard-pressed to find a nutrition researcher or dietitian who didn’t understand that some amount of dietary fat is essential. The Manichaean view, then, is more a product of a lack of attention to nuance than to the ideology of nutritionism itself.

And Pollan, of course, will sound every bit as Manichaean as any supporter of nutritionism when he contrasts fresh and processed foods. Indeed, in the same chapter, he argues that “the most troubling feature of nutritionism” is that it does not allow for “any qualitative distinction between whole foods and processed foods.” Quoting Gyorgy Scrinis, he argues that in the nutritionist view, “even processed foods may be considered to be ‘healthier’ for you than whole foods if they contain the appropriate quantities of some nutrients.”

To find this idea troubling, one has to take a position that is perhaps more radical than it might sound. One has to reject, for instance, the idea that iodized salt has played an important role in reducing brain damage in infants (or, I suppose, one could reject the idea that brain damage is unhealthy). Elsewhere, David Julian McClements, César Vega, Anne E. McBride, and Eric Andrew Decker have argued that fortification of flour has played a critical role in reducing deaths due to pellagra. To be sure, there are ways to process food that are less benign, but if Scrinis and Pollan want us to believe that processed foods cannot be healthier than whole foods under any circumstances, then they need to be able to answer to these examples.

By the end of the chapter, nutritionism has become something so big and bad that it seems to encompass just about everything that’s wrong with our way of eating. Now the time is ripe for Pollan to save us from this ideology which threatens not just our health but pleasure, common sense, and even food itself.

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