One hypothesis is that the antioxidants in fresh produce — compounds like beta carotene, lycopene, vitamin e, etc. — are the x factor. It makes good sense: these molecules (which plants produce to protect themselves from the highly reactive oxygen atoms produced in photosynthesis) vanquish the free radicals in our bodies, which can damage and initiate cancers. At least thats how it seems to work in the test tube. Yet as soon as you remove these useful molecules from the context of the whole foods theyre found in, as weve done in creating antioxidant supplements, they dont work at all. Indeed, in the case of beta carotene ingested as a supplement, scientists have discovered that it actually increases the risk of certain cancers.
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So if youre a nutritional scientist, you do the only thing you can do, given the tools at your disposal: break the thing down into its component parts and study those one by one, even if that means ignoring complex interactions and contexts, as well. This is what we mean by reductionist science. Scientific reductionism is an undeniably powerful tool, but it can mislead us too, especially when applied to something as complex as, on the one side, a food, and on the other, a human eater. It encourages us to take a mechanistic view of that transaction: put in this nutrient; get out that physiological result. Yet people differ english in important ways. Some populations can metabolize sugars better than others; depending on your evolutionary heritage, you may or may not be able to digest the lactose in milk. The specific ecology of your intestines helps determine how efficiently you digest what you eat, so that the same input of 100 calories may yield more or less energy depending on the proportion of Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes living in your gut. There is nothing very machinelike about the human eater, and so to think of food as simply fuel is wrong. Also, people dont eat nutrients, they eat foods, and foods can behave very differently than the nutrients they contain. Researchers have report long believed, based on epidemiological comparisons of different populations, that a diet high in fruits and vegetables confers some protection against cancer. So naturally they ask, what nutrients in those plant foods are responsible for that effect?
Were always happy to receive a dispensation to eat more of something (with the possible exception of oat bran and one of the things nutritionism reliably gives us is some such dispensation: low-fat cookies then, low-carb beer now. Its hard to imagine the low-fat craze taking off as it did if Mcgoverns original food-based recommendations had stood: eat fewer meat and dairy products. For how do you get from that time stark counsel to the idea that another case of Snackwells is just what the doctor ordered? Bad science, but if nutritionism leads to a kind of false consciousness in the mind of the eater, the ideology can just as easily mislead the scientist. Most nutritional science involves studying one nutrient at a time, an approach that even nutritionists who do it will tell you is deeply flawed. The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science, points out Marion Nestle, the new York University nutritionist, is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food, the food out of the context of diet and the diet out of the context of lifestyle. If nutritional scientists know this, why do they do it anyway? Because a nutrient bias is built into the way science is done: scientists need individual variables they can isolate. Yet even the simplest food is a hopelessly complex thing to study, a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in complex and dynamic relation to one another, and all of which together are in the process of changing from one state.
(Why this should have come as news is a mystery: as long as people have been raising animals for food, they have fattened them on carbs.). But there are a couple of problems with this revisionist picture. First, while it is true that Americans post-1977 did begin binging on carbs, and that fat as a percentage of total calories in the American diet declined, we never did in fact cut down on our consumption of fat. Meat consumption actually climbed. We just heaped a bunch more umum carbs onto our plates, obscuring perhaps, but not replacing, the expanding chunk of animal protein squatting in the center. How did that happen? I would submit that the ideology of nutritionism deserves as much of the blame as the carbohydrates themselves do — that and human nature. By framing dietary advice in terms of good and bad nutrients, and by burying the recommendation that we should eat less of any particular food, it was easy for the take-home message of the 19ietary guidelines to be simplified as follows: Eat more low-fat foods. And that is what we did.
In the wake of the panels recommendation that we cut down on saturated fat, a recommendation seconded by the 1982 National Academy report on cancer, Americans did indeed change their diets, endeavoring for a quarter-century to do what they had been told. The industrial food supply was promptly reformulated to reflect the official advice, giving us low-fat pork, low-fat Snackwells and all the low-fat pasta and high-fructose (yet low-fat!) corn syrup we could consume. Which turned out to be quite a lot. Oddly, america got really fat on its new low-fat diet — indeed, many date the current and diabetes epidemic to the late 1970s, when Americans began binging on carbohydrates, ostensibly as a way to avoid the evils of fat. This story has been told before, notably in these pages (. What if Its All been a big Fat lie? by gary taubes, july 7, 2002 but its a little more complicated than the official version suggests. In that version, which inspired the most recent Atkins craze, we were told that America got fat when, responding to bad scientific advice, it shifted its diet from fats to carbs, suggesting that a re-evaluation of the two nutrients is in order: fat doesnt make.
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So far, at least, you cant put oat bran in a banana. So depending on the reigning nutritional orthodoxy, the avocado might be either a high-fat food to be avoided (Old Think) or a food high in monounsaturated fat to be embraced (New Think). The fate of each whole food rises and falls with every change in the nutritional weather, while the processed foods are simply reformulated. Thats why when the Atkins mania hit the food industry, bread and pasta were report given a quick redesign (dialing back the carbs; boosting the protein while the poor unreconstructed potatoes and carrots were left out in the cold. Of course its 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.
Eat right, get fatter, so nutritionism is good for business. But is it good for us? You might think that a national fixation on nutrients would lead to measurable improvements in the public health. But for that to happen, the underlying nutritional science, as well as the policy recommendations (and the journalism) based on that science, would have essay to be sound. This has seldom been the case. Consider what happened immediately after the 1977 dietary goals — mcgoverns masterpiece of politico-nutritionist compromise.
But expert help to do what, exactly? This brings us to another unexamined assumption: that the whole point of eating is to maintain and promote bodily health. Hippocratess famous injunction to let food be thy medicine is ritually invoked to support this notion. Ill leave the premise alone for now, except to point out that it is not shared by all cultures and that the experience of these other cultures suggests that, paradoxically, viewing food as being about things other than bodily health — like pleasure, say,. This is what we usually have in mind when we speak of the French paradox — the fact that a population that eats all sorts of unhealthful nutrients is in many ways healthier than we Americans are. So there is at least a question as to whether nutritionism is actually any good for you.
Another potentially serious weakness of nutritionist ideology is that it has trouble discerning qualitative distinctions between foods. So fish, beef and chicken through the nutritionists lens become mere delivery systems for varying quantities of fats and proteins and whatever other nutrients are on their scope. Similarly, any qualitative distinctions between processed foods and whole foods disappear when your focus is on quantifying the nutrients they contain (or, more precisely, the known nutrients). This is a great boon for manufacturers of processed food, and it helps explain why they have been so happy to get with the nutritionism program. In the years following Mcgoverns capitulation and the 1982 National Academy report, the food industry set about re-engineering thousands of popular food products to contain more of the nutrients that science and government had deemed the good ones and less of the bad, and. The year of Eating Oat Bran — also known as 1988 — served as a kind of coming-out party for the food scientists, who succeeded in getting the material into nearly every processed food sold in America. Oat brans moment on the dietary stage didnt last long, but the pattern had been established, and every few years since then a new oat bran has taken its turn under the marketing lights. By comparison, the typical real food has more trouble competing under the rules of nutritionism, if only because something like a banana or an avocado cant easily change its nutritional stripes (though rest assured the genetic engineers are hard at work on the problem).
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Ideologies are ways of organizing large swaths of life and experience under a set of shared but unexamined assumptions. This quality makes an ideology particularly hard to see, at least while its exerting its hold on your culture. A reigning ideology is a little like the letter weather, all pervasive and virtually inescapable. Still, we can try. In the case of nutritionism, the widely shared but unexamined assumption is that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient. From this basic premise flow several others. Since nutrients, as compared with foods, are invisible and therefore slightly mysterious, it falls to the scientists (and to the journalists through whom the scientists speak) to explain the hidden reality of foods. To enter a world student in which you dine on unseen nutrients, you need lots of expert help.
The linguistic capitulation did nothing to rescue mcgovern from his blunder; the very next election, in 1980, the beef lobby helped rusticate the three-term senator, sending an unmistakable warning to anyone who would challenge the American diet, and in particular the big chunk of animal. Henceforth, government dietary guidelines would shun plain talk about whole foods, each of which has its trade association on Capitol Hill, and would instead arrive clothed in scientific euphemism and speaking of nutrients, entities that few Americans really understood but that lack powerful lobbies. This was precisely the tack taken by the national Academy of Sciences when it issued its landmark report on diet and cancer in 1982. Organized nutrient by nutrient in a way guaranteed to offend no food group, it codified the official new dietary language. Industry and media followed suit, and terms like polyunsaturated, cholesterol, monounsaturated, carbohydrate, fiber, polyphenols, amino acids and carotenes soon colonized much of the cultural space previously occupied by the tangible substance formerly known as food. The Age of Nutritionism had arrived. The rise of nutritionism, the first thing to understand about nutritionism — i first encountered the term in the work of an Australian sociologist of science named gyorgy Scrinis — is that it is not quite the same as nutrition. As the ism suggests, it is not a scientific subject but an ideology.supporting
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 committees 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; dont look for it ever again in any official. 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.
At the end of the 19th century, british doctors were puzzled by the fact that Chinese laborers in the malay states were dying of a disease called beriberi, which didnt seem to afflict Tamils or native malays. The mystery was solved when someone pointed out that the Chinese ate polished, or white, rice, while the others ate rice that hadnt been mechanically milled. A few years later, casimir Funk, a polish chemist, discovered the essential nutrient in rice husks that protected against beriberi and called it a vitamine, the first micronutrient. Brought a kind of glamour to the science of nutrition, and though certain sectors of the population began to eat by its expert lights, it really wasnt until late in the 20th century that nutrients managed to push food aside in the popular imagination. No single event marked the shift from eating food to eating nutrients, essay 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 — 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. 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.
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From foods to nutrients, it was in the vertebrae 1980s that food began disappearing from the American supermarket, gradually to be replaced by nutrients, which are not the same thing. Where once the familiar names of recognizable comestibles — things like eggs or breakfast cereal or cookies — claimed pride of place on the brightly colored packages crowding the aisles, now new terms like fiber and and saturated fat rose to large-type prominence. More important than mere foods, the presence or absence of these invisible substances was now generally believed to confer health benefits on their eaters. Foods by comparison were coarse, old-fashioned and decidedly unscientific things — who could say what was in them, really? But nutrients — those chemical compounds and minerals in foods that nutritionists have deemed important to health — gleamed with the promise of scientific certainty; eat more of the right ones, fewer of the wrong, and you would live longer and avoid chronic diseases. Nutrients themselves had been around, as a concept, since the early 19th century, when the English doctor and chemist William Prout identified what came to be called the macronutrients: protein, fat and carbohydrates. It was thought that that was pretty much all there was going on in food, until doctors noticed that an adequate supply of the big three did not necessarily keep people nourished.