The ontology of nutritionism.

One of the best books I’ve read this summer is Michael Pollan’s In Defence of FoodIt’s much shorter than his other works, which makes it perfect for anyone keen on learning the jist of his food philosophy for practical purposes, without relishing the deeper intellectual details. I just want to outline here Pollan’s case for abandoning the language of nutritionism, because I’ve pretty much bought into it and have decided to start writing, talking and hopefully thinking accordingly.

The history of nutritionism, then, can be seen as an attempt by science to identify and map out what it is in food that is good for us, before offering dietary advice accordingly. The first big success was supposed to be the discovery of the three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein and fats. And at the time, it was believed that this picture was exhaustive. These were all we needed in the appropriate quantities in order to live healthily.

Problems arose, though, when it was noted that people who, for instance, spent long periods at sea had diets rich in all the macronutrients, and yet still contracted diseases like scurvy. Soon came the arrival of a new language and level of parts to explain what food is and what we need from it: micronutrients; vitamins and minerals.

Now, all dietary advice today seems to be built around this conceptual framework. We hear plenty about the need for protein and watching our intake of carbs and fats. We know plants tend to be high in the vitamins and minerals also necessary for staying healthy. All food is analysed in terms of such component breakdowns. We have, fundamentally, bought into this way of perceiving the world in which we don’t talk about oranges or kale or whatever being good for you, and cheeseburgers being bad. What we hear and understand is that Vitamins A, C and K are good for you, and saturated fat is bad. Nutritionism encourages us to psychologically divorce evaluative judgements from the food we in fact eat. And I think, largely following Pollan, that there’s likely to be several problems with this.

First, it facilitates our being deceived by unhealthy hyper-processed foods, because they can carry legitimate labels proclaiming their low saturated fat, or high artificially added calcium, and we buy into thinking that such foods are good for us accordingly when they aren’t,, because such properties alone don’t reliably track what is good.

Second, nobody can conceivably act on such data and devise a diet to precisely hit their Recommended Daily Allowances accordingly, and this is far more likely to lead to frustration and scepticism about healthy eating as a whole, at least when compared to the simpler and better advice of just eating a diverse, predominantly plant-based diet.

Third, it encourages us to lack humility in appreciating the complexity of the factors at play here, and people design new food and diets with our apparent knowledge in mind, far too sure that we’ve adequately located and mastered what it is that makes food good.

And proof of the foolishness of all this comes in the fourth point, which is that we already seem to be on the verge of the next paradigm shift. ‘Phytochemicals‘ like ‘antioxidants’ are nowadays all the rage, as a super-micro level is increasingly explored. Now, we are told, it may in fact be these properties which fight cancer and make vegetables so good for us, and there may be up to twenty thousand types of them. And this shift seems somewhat overdue. It is, after all, no secret amongst those that follow centuries of accumulated folk-wisdom invested in cuisines and traditions that green tea is very, very good for you. Yet it’s hardly high in macronutrients or vitamins and minerals, so our current model struggles to understand why.

So how long until phytochemicals become sanctioned as ‘essential nutrients’? How long until agencies start attempting to tell us which foods contain which phytochemicals, and in what quantities? And what good will any of this do that isn’t fully served already by simply saying: fruit and vegetables are good; who knows and cares why? Just eat more of them.


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