Where Our Food Outlook Goes Wrong

Author Gyorgy Scrinis defines "nutritionism" as "characterized by a reductive focus on the nutrient composition of foods as the means for understanding their healthfulness, as well as by a reductive interpretation of the role of these nutrients in bodily health." Meaning, we reduce food to vehicles in a delivery system: this will give me Vitamin A; this will give my body calcium; this will provide protein to build muscles.

Not only does the nutritionism view miss the holistic nature of our relation to food and how our bodies process it, but it has allowed in the door all manner of highly processed "functional foods" that, unproven, promise superior delivery of the nutrients du jour.

Scrinis traces the history of our "nutritional reductionism" from the end of the 19th century to the present, ranging from the discovery of vitamins and the fight against specific deficiency disorders, to the ongoing a-calorie-is/is not-a-calorie arguments, to the low-fat push, to the latest diets and the marketing of functional foods.

Some of my 21 pages of highlights (I added any emphases):

  • "The health effects of a food may also depend on the other foods they are combined with in a meal. At the same time, various food processing techniques and additives may significantly transform--and in some cases reduce or degrade--the nutritional quality of whole foods." In other words, eat a grapefruit with your breakfast and drink a glass of whole milk--don't bother with the calcium-fortified orange juice.
  • "Nutrition experts have...made definitive statements about the role of single nutrients, such as the role of fat or fiber, in isolation from the foods in which we find them. This single-nutrient reductionism often ignore or simplifies the interactions among nutrients within foods and within the body...Nutrition scientists have also tended to exaggerate any beneficial or detrimental health effects of single nutrients." Scrinis gives the saturated fat and cholesterol (supposedly detrimental) examples, along with the omega-3 fats and vitamin D (exaggeratedly beneficial) ones.
  • Foods developed by manufacturers were once required by the FDA to be labeled as "imitation foods."
  • Much-reviled refined grains, while they lose their vitamins and minerals, still retain their protein. An artisan loaf of homemade white sourdough bread is not in the same class as factory-produced white bread, with its many additional, unnatural ingredients. Moreover, how the body processes refined grains (i.e., whether your blood sugar and insulin levels skyrocket), depends on what you eat it with. Slap on some butter, eat it with your meat and vegetables, and that hit to your system is muffled.
  • After trans-fats got the thumbs-down, manufacturers rushed to replace them with fats extracted, refined, solidified, and so on, in other ways that did not produce trans-fats. However, these replacement fats have not been tested and may cause problems of their own down the road. Even the vegetable oils we've been downing in place of butter and bacon fat and so on "may suffer oxidative damage [and depletion] as a result of the extraction and refining process, as well as during high-temperature frying."
  •  "With processed and fast-food meals...a high calorie count may reveal the existence of so-called hidden calories..."hidden fats" (e.g., refined vegetable oils), "hidden carbs" (e.g., flour, chemically modified starches, or sugar), or "hidden protein" (e.g., soy isolates)." Not that low-calorie is safe, since foods can be engineered to replace fat and carbohydrates with "noncaloric synthesized ingredients, such as artificial fats and artificial sugars."
  • In a world where we are always chasing the latest diet--Mediterranean, Okinawan, vegan, low-fat, Paleo, Atkins, etc., etc.-- what most diets have in common is a reliance on whole foods and severe restrictions on processed elements.
  • "The health threats posed by processed-reconstituted foods has little if anything to do with the presence or absence of specific naturally occurring nutrients--such as fats, carbs, or vitamins--but rather with the combined effect on the body of high levels of reconstituted, degraded, and synthetic food components and additives." Think protein bars. Chicken nuggets. Storebought baked goods.
  • Fret about spending extra money at the farmers market? According to Scrinis, "the quality of foods can vary according to the types of agricultural technologies, production methods, breeding techniques, soil quality, and harvesting and transportation practices." He recommends grass-fed and pastured meats, eggs, and dairy throughout. Studies that compare nutrient value between organic and conventional foods completely miss the point--it's all about what is absent: chemical pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, and hormones.

What, finally, does Scrinis conclude? EAT WHOLE FOODS. If you want to eat meat, go ahead (but get the good stuff--see point above). If you want to forgo meat, go ahead. If you want to eat some refined grains, go ahead. Just stay away from the processed stuff. Approach your meals holistically, and don't reduce food to nutrient dispensers, because that isn't how it works anyhow.

 And given the other books I've been reading recently, Fat Chance and Why We Get Fat, for example, I can't tell you how glad I am to hear someone talk about the implications of recommended diets! People, we cannot all go on the Paleo diet. The earth cannot support it. We cannot all go fish-only and fish-oil supplements--the world fisheries cannot support it. Scrinis declares, "Dietary guidelines should also be contextualized in terms of their implications for environmental sustainability and animal welfare." Here, here! As he points out, when everyone got warned off red meat and saturated fats, the demand for poultry went through the roof, a demand met "through cruel factory-farming practices."

Completely sane stuff. I highly recommend the book because a short review can't do it justice. In the meantime, the Bellevue Farmers Market can't open soon enough!