The following post is by Gyorgy Scrinis, author of Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice:
Does the food you’re eating contain good or bad fats, good or bad carbs, vitamin D, fiber, calcium, antioxidants, cheap calories, or empty calories, and is it low-G.I., energy dense, or nutrient dense? Our language for describing food has itself become nutrient dense, even if many of the manufactured foods and drinks we consume are not.
Nutrition science and dietary advice have for many decades been characterized by a dominant focus on nutrients as the key to understanding the relationship between food and health, and a reductive interpretation of these nutrients. The “truth” of the relationship between food and the body has been sought by nutrition experts—and definitive dietary advice has been communicated to the lay public—primarily at the level of nutrients, rather than at the level of foods and dietary patterns.
Such is the dominance of this ideology of nutritionism, as I refer to it, that until recently it has largely been taken-for-granted and remained unexamined. In Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice, I set out to deconstruct the origins and the characteristics of this understanding of food and nutrients, to explore its various manifestations and consequences, and to propose alternatives to nutritionism.
I reflect on various nutritional debates and controversies across three eras of nutritionism—the eras of quantifying nutritionism, good-and-bad nutritionism, and the contemporary era of functional nutritionism—and through a number of case studies, including the margarine versus butter debate, the battle between diets framed in terms of their macronutrient profile, and the emergence of so-called functional foods that are promoted by the food industry as capable of enhancing our health in a precise and targeted fashion.
The celebration of margarine as a more healthful spread than butter illustrates how a reductive and simplified interpretation of food in terms of supposedly “good” and “bad”fats led nutrition experts to ignore concerns over the highly processed and chemically reconstituted character of margarine, and to exaggerate its health benefits. From the 1960s, margarine was transformed from being a cheap imitation of butter, to being perceived as better than the original food it had been designed to simulate. The unveiling of the harmfulness of the trans-fats in margarine in the 1990s has ironically been used by nutrition experts to reinforce and extend the discourse of good and bad fats (trans-fats are now bad fats). Margarine varieties containing extracted and reconstituted plant sterols are now even celebrated as cholesterol-lowering, health-enhancing functional foods.
The primary way in which weight-loss diets have been promoted since the 1970s is in terms of their ratio of fat, carbs and protein. These diets are premised on the idea that the macronutrient ratio is the prime determinant of a food’s impacts on weight gain or weight loss, regardless of the particular foods in which these macronutrients are contained. The government-endorsed low-fat campaign that dominated the 1980s and 1990s was an early expression of this macronutrient reductionism, insisting that fat is bad, and by extension that reduced-fat foods are better than their high-fat equivalents. The Atkins-style low-carb diet has essentially been a mirror image of the low-fat ideology.
More recently experts have put their faith in the calorie and the energy-balance equation as the key to understanding and tackling the “obesity epidemic”. This is based on the very nineteenth century idea of the uniform calorie: a calorie is a calorie, all calories are alike, calories-in/calories-out, etc. But food and beverage corporations have now learned to crack that nutritional code—just as they did with the low-fat advice—and to produce and market reduced calorie junk foods and soft drinks.
Nutritionism has also shaped governments’ responses to regulating food production and consumption. This includes the shift to providing dietary advice to the public at the level of nutrients, and food labeling regulations that have prioritized nutrition facts rather than more detailed information on the nature and quality of a food and its ingredients. The nutricentric focus of government regulations has continued with the calls for calorie labeling, nutricentric traffic-light systems, and fat-taxes.
The food industry have greatly benefited from nutritionism in a number of ways. The focus on nutrients has drawn attention away from the type and quality of the food and ingredients in which these nutrients are contained. It has also opened up new ways of marketing food products through the use of nutrient-content and health claims. Nutritionism has also produced nutricentric persons—the subjects of nutritionism—who are open and susceptible to this nutritional marketing.
One of the manifestations of nutritionism in the contemporary era is the intense anxieties many people feel regarding the nutritional adequacy of their diets and even of whole foods. In the good-and-bad era, dietary advice was focused on avoiding the bad nutrients, and the fear of fat and cholesterol reigned. In the functional era, nutrition experts and the food industry now celebrate a wide range of supposedly health-enhancing, “functional” nutrients and food components, such as omega-3 fats, antioxidants and vitamin D. But they have also promoted the idea that our health will be harmed if we are not consuming an “optimal” level of these functional nutrients. Many people—including those who are otherwise healthy and eating diverse wholefoods diets—are concerned that they’re just not getting enough of these nutrients out if everyday foods, and are thereby compelled to seek these nutrients from fortified processed foods or nutritional supplements.
To criticize nutritionism doesn’t entail rejecting nutritional knowledge, but instead promoting other ways of studying and communicating the knowledge of nutrients, foods, and dietary patterns. My alternative paradigm—the food quality paradigm—also shifts the focus from nutrients to food production and processing quality, as well as to valuing traditional-cultural knowledge and sensible-practical experience. This means cultivating our food quality literacy, which is very much in line with the ethos of the so-called “real food” movement.