Healthy Homeschool Living: Nutrition and Nutritionism

Today, I will be pondering the vast difference between Nutrition and Nutritionism.  Nutritionism is a useful concept coined by Michael Pollan in his excellent ‘In Defence of Food’ documentary.  It is this documentary which began my journey into more healthful living.

Nutrition and Nutritionism

What is Nutrition and Nutritionism?

Nutrition is the science that interprets the interaction of nutrients and other substances in food in relation to maintenance, growth, reproduction, health and disease of an organism. (Wiki)

Nutritionism is a paradigm that assumes that it is the scientifically identified nutrients in foods that determine the value of individual food stuffs in the diet. In other words, it is the idea that the nutritional value of a food is the sum of all its individual nutrients, vitamins, and other components. (Wiki)

That’s the slightly uninteresting version of Nutrition and Nutritionism.  Blah, blah, blah.  For me though, it was Pollan’s description from ‘In Defence of Food’ which hit home.  As a result, I was able to see how important it is to make this differentiation:

The science of nutrition (Nutrition) often gets overlooked by the ideology of nutrition (Nutritionism)  Michael Pollan

Humans love bandwagons they can jump on.  Nutritionism is the 20th and 21st century bandwagon.  Most noteworthy is the idea that there are ‘evil’ nutrients and ‘blessed’ nutrients.  During the early 20th century protein was viewed as an evil nutrient whilst carbohydrate was viewed as a blessed nutrient.

An Example of Nutritionism Going Horribly Wrong

Pollan uses fat as a fabulous example of nutritionism going horribly wrong.  Fat, during the mid to late 20th century, was deemed an ‘evil’ nutrient.  And where there is evil there is always a counter nutrient which is blessed.  ‘Fat free’ was born and touted as the latest best and blessed nutrient (or lack thereof).  Of course, food companies immediately jumped on this nutritional bandwagon.  They quickly created products with little or no fat in them.  “Fat Free” and “Low Fat” became the latest marketing strategy.  Saturated fat in particular came under fire.  Many products were designed to cut out the saturated fat (evil) and increase the poly-unsaturated fat (blessed).  Thus margarine was born.

Margarine was made up of poly-unsaturated fats and was deemed healthy.  Thing was, in order for margarine to be spreadable and therefore a useful substitution for butter, it had to be heated to very high temperatures.  Unfortunately, the heating of the polyunsaturated fats hydrogenated them.  This changed them into trans fats.  Soon, people everywhere were opting for this ‘healthier’ butter substitute.  It was later found that trans fats were horribly unhealthy and one of the main causes of heart attacks.  That which humans sought to eradicate was in fact made worse by their meddling.

Dietary Salvation

In the above example, humans took a natural substance (butter) and tampered with it.  Butter contained an ‘evil’ nutrient: saturated fat.  After tampering with it they made margarine.  Margarine contained a ‘blessed’ nutrient: polyunsaturated fat.  Humans flocked to buy this blessed margarine.  Enthusiastic, they hoped to achieve a kind of dietary salvation.

And this need for dietary salvation continues today.  Currently, sugar is the evil nutrient.  Many (many) products are now marketed to be sugar free.  But to what cost?

Go and look at many of the ‘healthy’ specialised foods in the supermarket today.  You will find that food experts have been trying their hardest to create the perfect sweet spot in their food products.  By this, I mean food which is health, convenient and tasteful.

If you were to look at the ingredients of most of these products I can almost guarantee that you won’t recognised some, if not most, of those ingredients.  In fact, the less recognisable the product is to anything found naturally, the more fake ingredients it will contain.

Perfect Sweet Spot: Health, Convenience and Taste

Nature has provided us with an abundance of food which meets all these requirements.  For example, think of the humble banana.  It is jam packed full of nutrition, it is available at any time of the day, it requires nothing done to it and it even comes with its own wrapper!

In conclusion, there are two things we must understand:

  • Firstly, there is no need for man to tamper.
  • Secondly, the more we do the less healthy we become.

It is this I have been exploring over the last few months, and I look forward to sharing it with you.

Join me tomorrow – Healthy Homeschool Living: Nutrition File – Oat Groats

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  1. Nutrition vs nutritionism is such an important distinction. Nutrients aren’t legos we can recombine at will to make sonething uebernutritious

    In other words, don’t mess with Mother Nature and moderation in all things. ( still working on that part!) Love that documentary!

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