Written by Kara Collier
Nutritionism refers to a scientific approach to food that reduces it to individual macronutrients
Modern practices encourage food manufacturers to modify foods to fit various trends and prescribed diets, such as the low-fat diet
The focus on processed foods promotes rushed eating, loss of cultural heritage, and disconnection of pleasure from the process of eating
These behaviors are tied to poor eating habits, excessive portion sizes, and increased risk of metabolic syndrome
We have all removed certain foods from our diets because we have been told that they are bad for us. This makes us all, to some extent, victims of what is called “nutritionism”. Nutritionism has caused us to give up the basic pleasure of eating for a more scrutinizing, scientific approach to food.
In basic terms, nutritionism focuses on which ingredients we should eat more of, and which ones we should avoid. It claims that to do our shopping right, we need to be up to date on all the latest scientific research and learn to decipher increasingly complex food labels. It reduces foods to individual macronutrients - with a focus on products that have been formulated to remove fat or add synthetic fiber. This shifts our focus from whole foods to isolated nutrients.
Since the 1970s, nutritionism (i.e., food science) has become the dominant approach to food. Low-fat, no-cholesterol, high-fiber labels started to appear everywhere. Even simple foods like mayonnaise and yogurt, which previously contained just three ingredients, were now fortified with a list of new additives to make them more nutritious. Scientists also applied this approach to animal farming, which enabled the breeding of leaner cattle and pigs. This meant that even beef and pork could become part of a low-fat meal, modified to match the prescribed diet of our current culture.
Around the same time, one group of foods that could not yet be altered was being neglected: whole foods. We entered a strange period during which food manufacturers could make their products appear healthy simply by adding “healthy" nutrients to them, while whole foods, such as carrots, spinach, and beans were mostly neglected. These new, processed foods, were packaged in a way that promoted faster eating, eating alone, and eating frequently throughout the day. Combine this with our fast-paced cultural demands, and the result is a society of eating on-the-go, eating in the car, and missing the pleasure of eating entirely.
Pleasure, which used to be a core part of eating, is now being demonized and linked to impaired willpower. What isn't mentioned is that pleasure has important biochemical responses that can have a profound impact on our digestion. Pleasure stimulates a relaxation response in the gut and helps promote fullness from foods, while allowing us to digest them better. In contrast, the guilt that comes from eating a food deemed “unhealthy” triggers increased cortisol production and stimulates fat storage.
The saving grace of nutritionism should have been the fact that our physical health is improving – yet that is not the case. Even though we made the shift from a pleasure-based diet to a more “scientific” diet under the pretense that it would bring better health, the actual results are unconvincing. For instance, the massive increase of low-fat products on the market has coincided with an astonishing increase in obesity and diabetes in America.
As for the main goal of nutritionism – a reduction in heart disease – deaths from heart disease have fallen 50 percent since 1969. However, though such deaths declined significantly, hospital admissions for heart attacks did not. This suggests that the cause of the decline is not the change in our diet, but an improvement in medical care.
To combat the harmful side effects of our nutritionism culture, the first step is to recognize it. Be mindful of the food advertising you see, look at the whole food picture (not just the nutrients), and seek foods that provide pleasure and allow you to connect with others. Other education segments will dive further into nutritionism, obesity, and the hormones behind the scenes.