Taking Nutrition With a Grain of Salt

Food: when you hear the word, what do you think of? A favorite food, or a reason to be social? Or do you instead think of food as a barrier to your health–do you view food strictly in terms of carbs and calories?

Michael Pollan, a famous author, journalist, and professor, tells us in his book, In Defense of Food, we may be veering towards the latter ways of thinking. Pollan speaks of an ever-growing movement of “nutritionism”, wherein people view food with a “reductionistic” mindset. That is to say that when they are looking at food, they attempt to separate the whole into many individual parts. In so doing, they try to glean information of the healthfulness of particular ingredients. 

While elucidating consumers about the nutritional profiles of what they put in their bodies is a noble pursuit, it has not always been so clear-cut. Pollan tells us, for example, about the low-fat fad and the McGovern committee, a governmental body created to investigate malnutrition and better diets for the public. Pollan explains that although the committee had initially wanted to make public its conclusions regarding the negative effects of high consumptions of meat and dairy, these efforts were quashed by the incredible lobbying power of the American meat and dairy industries.

As a result, the McGovern committee instead went down the path of nutritionism, warning the public to fear all fat, instead of excess red meat and dairy (which of course contained fat), although many cultures around the world had continually consumed fat as part of a healthy diet. When the people largely heeded this advice, they began to experience a swelling of chronic diseases. We now know that some fats are healthful, and indeed, necessary. The scientific consensus has since changed, disregarding the blanket advice of low-fat diet recommendations.

My point in bringing all of this is up is not to create a climate where we disfavor the use of science, but just that there is worth in taking nutritional recommendations with a grain of salt, especially when they run counter to diets that have been consumed by peoples for hundreds of years without the advent of chronic disease.

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