Written by Kara Collier
Nutritionism categorizes foods as “good” and “bad,” with a hyperfocus on specific nutrients
Food labeling laws promote highly processed foods and lead to confusion amongst consumers
Let’s imagine you’re at the supermarket, looking to buy pasta, and have two choices: one is “imitation pasta” and the other is “low-carb pasta.” Which would you choose? Most people would go with what appears to be the healthier choice: the low-carb option. Yet, surprisingly, both types of pasta are essentially the same: they’re both highly processed imitations of actual pasta. But why is it that we don’t recognize this?
Nutritionism has taught us to think about food in terms of nutrients, which simplifies food and misses the overall point of eating. It enforces the idea that the main goal of eating is to maintain physical health. This type of thinking promotes an almost religious dualism of good versus bad nutrition – protein versus carbs, carbs versus fat, animal protein versus plant protein, and so on. If we only judge food by its nutrients, we begin to consider nutrient-rich processed food to be “healthier” for us than whole foods.
In 1938, the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act imposed strict rules on the marketing of imitation food products. One rule was that the word “imitation” had to appear on the packaging of any such product. Naturally, the food industry fought this decision. At a time when adulterated food was uncommon, labeling a food product as an imitation was seen as the kiss of death. Then, in 1973, the food industry used their influence to change the rule so that imitation food could be marketed without using the dreaded “I” word, as long as the imitation wasn’t nutritionally inferior. That’s how we eventually entered an era in which adulterated food products, like imitation pasta, came to be considered a "health" food.
Study after study has shown that there is no one "correct" diet, but the underlying similarity between dietary approaches that consistently have positive health outcomes is the focus on eating whole foods. This means focusing on getting your protein from fatty fish or wild game instead of vanilla cupcake protein powder and beef sticks. This means incorporating natural sources of fat such as avocados and olives instead of canola oil. This means eating food that is as close to its original form as possible. If we are able to focus on this type of eating, as opposed to counting macros or picking food with the "right" health claim on a package, we will have better health outcomes and less stress associated with eating.
The failings of Nutritionism reveal that we’re in need of a new way of thinking about eating. In the following education, we’ll examine the Western diet and its relation to our generally poor physical health.