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Nature vs. Nutritionism’s False Hope

How many times have you heard this question, “With all the scientific information we now know about nutrition, how come Americans are heavier and unhealthier now than ever before?” The answer is the same as it ever was: because we overeat, we eat a ton of crap food, and don’t sufficiently exercise. We know it and we’ve known it for a long time.

One of the “new” hopes to correct our misbegotten food habits (that’s been increasingly gaining ground over the past few decades) is what Michael Pollan has termed nutritionism – the science of qualifying foods based upon their reductionist component values such as fiber, vitamins, minerals, protein and fats. It starts with researchers examining foods for these qualities and how they affect our health. Then the government promulgates guidelines  of how much of what we should eat to be healthy. (This gets updated every few years.) And finally food manufacturers and providers more than happily jump on the bandwagon to increase sales by boasting their products have this component and that health benefit. They even create new “foods” and drinks purposefully to feed us nutritional ingredients; think vitamin waters or Ensure – once for chemo patients, now for all of us who don’t have the time to make breakfast or eat lunch!

Meanwhile, many of us who have the luxury to hear about this information and have the money to act on it, become ever more frantic believing we must bolster our health by following the latest research and imbibe in the newly identified food components. And those who can’t or don’t follow these latest stories are still buffeted by  the advertising of these food components.

To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with finding out what foods have in them that may help us. In fact it’s often a good thing because we can learn from this and make our diets healthier. However, when nutritionism is taken as the savior of our dietary problems, it becomes another obstacle keeping us from the real solution – becoming connected to real food. Just as musical notes on paper tell us about the music but cannot express the artistry and flow that hearing the music can only capture, so too nutritionism gives us the information sans the vital ingredient of relationship that connects us to our food, its time and place with the land.  

We are overweight, and have been for a long time (and it’s getting significantly worse) because of the availability and plethora of all the manufactured junk foods that companies supply us because we crave their sugars, fats and salts! Part and parcel is how much of these ready-to eat food are ubiquitous and conveniently placed before us (McDonalds, convenience stores, gas stations and vending machines everywhere proffering soda, chips and candy). It’s all there ready for our gobbling devoid of any connection with the earth, our bodies, our health, our true sustenance!

It’s not the intellectual information about nutrition – pro or con – that is going to help our society. If nutritionism was the savior, wouldn’t we already be thinning down and less diseased? Instead, we are rapidly moving in the opposite direction.

So increasingly nutritionism will not only not work, it leads us away from the one and only thing that can put us on the right path of eating. The more we rely on nutritionism as our guidance system, the more we detach ourselves from our relationship with food, the earth and life. To make sweeping change, we need to establish a healthy relationship with real food.

So let’s start with Michael Pollans’ wise seven word prescription – “Eat food, mostly plants, not too much.” In order to follow this, we have to know what food is.


According to Miriam Webster.com (accessed 8/14/11), food is

  1. a: material consisting essentially of protein, carbohydrate, and fat used in the body of an organism to sustain growth, repair, and vital processes and to furnish energy; also: such food together with supplementary substances (as minerals, vitamins, and condiments)
  2. nutriment in solid form

When you read this don’t you feel like you’re in a science lab? Oddly enough, this definition compliments the sentiment of nutritionism surprisingly well. Accordingly then, we are eating food when we eat soy isolate protein rich nutrition bars or a box of vitamin enriched processed cereal. But is that REAL food? Don’t the words “real food” evoke something substantially more to you? So what is it?

Real food is that which comes from the earth and is whole, unprocessed (other than by heat), natural, and complete. A hallmark of real food is characterized by its lack of denaturing by the time it reaches your plate.


Until then, keep me posted with what you think about these issues.


Photo credit: karenblakeman, used with permission under Creative Commons license.

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3 comments to Nature vs. Nutritionism’s False Hope

  • What you describe is so significant – that is, that the fast food industry makes itself so available to us that it is an easy solution to hunger. Just stop off anywhere on the way to anywhere and we can pick up convenience, wrapped in tasty sugar, salt, fat, you name it.

    Bruce, I commend your honesty and struggle. It takes a bit of planning to disconnect from the “matrix” of our food system, its seduction has gravity for sure.

    Bringing some provisions from home – almonds, banana,yogurt, soup, a simple sandwich. All these take a bit of effort, yet I do think the rewards are great.

  • Bruce Agte

    In my daily life, I am surrounded by “food” sources of every variety. Some wonderful restaurants, yes, but also Subway, Dominoes, Popeye’s, all within a block of my house. Along the 8 mile route to my shop, there are 4 Dunkin’ Donuts. I have patronized them all. But I have been trying to evolve away from them, and I think a crucial step is to do what this essay encourages me to do: think more deeply about what food IS. The past couple of weeks I’ve been working with a strategy that — and I know it sounds corny — revolves around the phrase “Don’t go there.” When I’m hungry, I understand my body needs REAL food, not crap. So if I find myself in the middle of a work day thinking about the Burger King across the street, I remind myself that my body does not need anything they have. I tell myself Don’t Go There, and, increasingly, I don’t.

  • Lynne Buschman

    Super interesting. Good work.