Monday, January 29, 2007


Michael Pollan (the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma) had a lengthy (and weighty) essay in yesterday's New York Times on "nutritionism" and his proposal for alternatives to nutritionism.

"Nutritionism*" is the notion that what's important to eating is not food, but nutrients. It's the kind of thinking that brings us vitamin pills (which are generally a good thing), but also encourages us to eat more or less of specific substances in food. Nutritionism tells us to eat less animal fat, and more oat bran; less cholesterol, and more omega-3 fatty acids. Nutritionism leads to foods with things added that don't belong, to make them better for us, or things taken away that make them worse. It brings us fat-free cookies, high-fiber yogurt, and egg substitutes with no cholesterol, but added omega-3 fatty acids.

It also brings us a high level of confusion. Is margerine better than butter because it doesn't contain animal fat? Or is it worse because it has trans fat? Or are they the same, because both are saturated? The idea that discrete substances within the food make it good are bad is the heart of nutritionism.

Pollan attacks that notion, pointing out that in many cases (like antioxidants), removing the substance from the food it comes in removes the effect the nutrient is believed to have. He also points out that, as we've "learned" more and more rules for eating healthy, our health as a nation has deteriorated. We are fatter now, and have higher rates of diabetes. Playing with the nutrients in food hasn't really benefited us.

He does offer a way out of the maze of nutritionism: eating real food instead of "food-like substances." Pollan's rules for eating real food:

1. Eat food. Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.

2. Avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims. They’re apt to be heavily processed, and the claims are often dubious at best.

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.

4. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible.

5. Pay more, eat less… Paying more for food well grown in good soils … will contribute not only to your health… but also to the health of… the people who grow it and the people who live downstream, and downwind, of the farms where it is grown.

“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

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.

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.

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.

[Those items are Pollan's words, but edited down by me]

It is a fascinating, if somewhat long, article, and well worth reading.

*Pollan cites sociologist Gyorgy Scrinis as the source of this term

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