The rise of nutritionism: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

avocado3 Reading Michael Pollan’s New York Times article "Unhappy Meals" has changed the way I think about food, or the stuff we constantly consume and call "food".  It’s not a shock-and-horror Super-size Me or a "we’re all going to die so let’s kill Kraft" manifesto, it’s the history of how we got ourselves in this mess and how to get out of it.  Click here and print it and read it during your next meal.  Check out this passage on the political origins of nutritionism:

No single event marked the shift from eating food to eating nutrients, though in retrospect a little-noticed political dust-up in Washington in 1977 seems to have helped propel American food culture down this dimly lighted path. Responding to an alarming increase in chronic diseases linked to diet — including heart disease, cancer and diabetes — a Senate Select Committee on Nutrition, headed by George McGovern, held hearings on the problem and prepared what by all rights should have been an uncontroversial document called “Dietary Goals for the United States.” The committee learned that while rates of coronary heart disease had soared in America since World War II, other cultures that consumed traditional diets based largely on plants had strikingly low rates of chronic disease. Epidemiologists also had observed that in America during the war years, when meat and dairy products were strictly rationed, the rate of heart disease temporarily plummeted.

Naïvely putting two and two together, the committee drafted a straightforward set of dietary guidelines calling on Americans to cut down on red meat and dairy products. Within weeks a firestorm, emanating from the red-meat and dairy industries, engulfed the committee, and Senator McGovern (who had a great many cattle ranchers among his South Dakota constituents) was forced to beat a retreat. The committee’s recommendations were hastily rewritten. Plain talk about food — the committee had advised Americans to actually “reduce consumption of meat” — was replaced by artful compromise: “Choose meats, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated-fat intake.”

A subtle change in emphasis, you might say, but a world of difference just the same. First, the stark message to “eat less” of a particular food has been deep-sixed; don’t look for it ever again in any official U.S. dietary pronouncement. Second, notice how distinctions between entities as different as fish and beef and chicken have collapsed; those three venerable foods, each representing an entirely different taxonomic class, are now lumped together as delivery systems for a single nutrient. Notice too how the new language exonerates the foods themselves; now the culprit is an obscure, invisible, tasteless — and politically unconnected — substance that may or may not lurk in them called “saturated fat.”

And from a marketing perspective, this is interesting:

…it’s also a lot easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a potato or carrot, with the perverse result that the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over, the Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming about their newfound whole-grain goodness… Don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign that they have nothing valuable to say about health.

So the biggest takeaway is to eat food.  It’s not easy though if you go by this definition:

Eat food. Though in our current state of confusion, this is much easier said than done. So try this: Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. (Sorry, but at this point Moms are as confused as the rest of us, which is why we have to go back a couple of generations, to a time before the advent of modern food products.) There are a great many foodlike items in the supermarket your ancestors wouldn’t recognize as food (Go-Gurt? Breakfast-cereal bars? Nondairy creamer?); stay away from these.

Good news is that I like greens!  But do I eat them?  Nope.  So, I’ve enlisted the services of a holistic health counselor to help me manage some positive long-term health changes in my life. 

Shaya Mercer is a nutritional health counselor (see who is trained in Integrative Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. I’m in the beginning of a six month program with her and have made some small changes like drinking more water, eating more organic whole foods, and getting to bed earlier and I’m already feeling a lot better.  While it would be doable to try to make the changes by myself, my physical health has been the first thing I chuck out when I try to manage working at Microsoft while going to grad school.  Come home from work and have to study Accounting?  If I have to study Accounting I’m going to have someone else cook me dinner, dammit.  And I’m having a chocolate shake.  Well, and the free ice cream at school doesn’t help (and it’s the good stuff – Nestle Tollhouse Ice Cream Cookie Sandwiches, Hagen Daas, Dibs, etc).  I’m gonna need help!

………..Michael Pollan………..


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