Nutritionism is a term used to describe the reductionist approach to nutrition. Nutritionism is when we forget we are eating food. How on earth could we be forgetting we are eating food?! As bizarre as it seems, nutritionism is very much so prevalent in the western culture and could be the root of a lot public health issues.
Nutritionism defines food as the sum of its nutrients. When you eat an apple, you aren’t eating an apple. You are eating fibre, vitamin A, phytonutrients and fructose. This obsession with defining food solely by their nutrient content is the essence of nutritionism. It is the removal of the context in which nutrients are consumed and can lead to a rather unhealthy and entirely distorted relationship with food.
Where Did It All Begin?
In the past decades, nutrition science has seen many advances. What really rocked the nutrition world, was the discovery of vitamins, minerals and their deficiencies. And so, the focal point of western nutrition was born! From this point on, dietician’s practice, the Australian Dietary Guidelines and food policy were shaped by the aim to prevent micronutrient deficiency.
Nutrition and the food industry are intimately related. Naturally, revelations in the nutrition world, mean changes for the food industry. In response to the ground-breaking discovery of vitamins and minerals, the food industry began reformulating food to contain a higher nutrient content, aiming to prevent deficiency. For example, in order to prevent thiamine deficiency, it is mandatory to fortify bread.
Good Vs Evil
With the discovery of nutrients, came the discovery of good and bad ones. The world was keen to put nutrients into discrete boxes and make black and white conclusions about their effect on our health. This is where the science gets hijacked. Demonization of any one nutrient or glorification of another is not a healthy way to think about food and can lead to dire consequences. Research shows, completely eradicating a nutrient from the diet is not sustainable, nor healthy. Instead, an ‘everything in moderation’, well balanced diet is conducive to health.
Fat and The Food Industry
Studies that showed an association between fat consumption and cardiovascular disease struck fear into the hearts of people with high fat diets. Drastic changes to the way society understands and perceives ‘fat’ occurred in response to these studies. The food industry saw this as an opportunity. By reformulating its food to be ‘low fat’, it could be marketed as ‘healthy’ and therefore, was more popular with fat-fearing consumers. Low fat biscuits, milks, ice-creams stormed the shelves of supermarkets went home with health-conscious families, to be consumed in guilt free excess.
If you add some fruit and nuts to a chocolate bar, is chocolate healthy? No! If adding some good nutrients to an unhealthy product doesn’t make it healthy, then why would removing some ‘bad’ nutrients from an unhealthy product make it healthy? In a lot of cases, low fat products are pumped full of sugar in order to make them taste good! This backwards logic is nutritionism at its finest and is likely a large contributing factor to increased sugar consumption over the past decade, and the subsequent rise of type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Somehow, we managed to turn one of life’s simplest pleasures, healthy eating, into a whirlwind of confusion. This really is the birth of the unhealthy relationship between westerners and food.
Cue Functional Foods
With the hopes of further capitalizing on societies new found nutrient focus, the food industry created functional foods. These are foods that have been reformulated to be ‘healthier’. This can involve changing the original nutrient distribution of a food and/or adding or removing naturally occurring nutrients.
One issue with this, is that if we add ‘healthy’ nutrients to foods, can we really expect them to work in the same way? This fails to consider the complex interactions of nutrients within the foods we eat. Mother nature often provides us nutrients in the perfect doses and conditions for absorption, so maybe we shouldn’t be playing around with this.
Continuing the Fat Debate
Another important example of nutritionism gone wrong is how saturated fat is treated. Once people started realising that not all fat is bad, saturated fat, became the new demon. This resulted in the use of unsaturated fat in baked goods, breads, spreads and basically anything processed, with the thought that this would be ‘healthy’. Often, however, these fats were partially hydrogenated, creating a new type of fat known as trans-fat. Trans-fat is generally far more harmful than the original saturated fat we were trying to avoid.
A narrow-eyed focus on saturated fat, lead to this public health debacle and is a large contributing factor to the obesity and cardiovascular disease crisis we currently face.
Nutritionism has played an influential role in landing public health in its current dire state. With a little less obsession with nutrients, a little more understanding of functional foods and a healthier relationship to diet, the damage can be reversed (with time). You can start by aiming to consume healthy foods, not just healthy nutrients. It really is that simple.