Forget About Nutrients

Finally, I’ve found a book that sums up my healthy eating philosophy perfectly: In Defense of Food, written by Michael Pollan–who else? Pollan is a food journalist who has inspired me for years now. His earlier book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which you should also read, is even more groundbreaking, but primarily focuses on aspects of the food system other than nutrition. Anyway, I devoured In Defense Of Food over the last two days during my spring break, and it’s inspired me to write this post, in which I will try to summarize my take on Pollan’s work.

You’re probably wondering about the title of this post. After all, what kind of nutrition major am I if I don’t care about nutrients? Let me attempt to explain. In previous posts, I’ve written a lot about my belief that the answer to our dietary crisis (in terms of human health, animal welfare, and environmental sustainability) lies in switching our consumption from highly processed foods typical of the so-called Western diet to primarily fresh, whole foods more commonly found in the traditional diet of any culture you can think of–what I liked to call “real food.” As soon as Americans started eating the Western diet, they started developing obesity and all of the related chronic diseases. Introduce the Western diet to any other people, be it the French, the Japanese, the Mexicans, the Indians, and they start getting sick just like the Americans. The obesity epidemic is now global. Diabetes, heart disease, and cancer are no longer diseases of affluence as they were once called. Developing countries are experiencing dietary distress at a greater rate than ever before. But I’m going off on a tangent.

So how did we get away from our traditional diets of real food? Mostly because food manufacturers realized that they could make food more addicting and achieve much higher profit margins by stripping food into its component parts and putting it back together again in different combinations, and nearly always with some quantity of added fat, sugar, and/or salt.

When society realized that highly processing foods stripped them of their micronutrients and made people sick with acute deficiency diseases, they started to fortify ’em back up with vitamins and minerals. Curiously enough, though, people continued to get heavier and sicker with chronic disease. Scientists continue to try to find the nutrients that the Western diet was missing and add them back to processed foods–antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, you name it. And as we very well know, they have been toying with the ratio of fat and carbs for decades now as each one is alternately demonized by the public. People think sugar is the culprit, or gluten, or artificial sweeteners, or trans fats. But try as they might, no one has been able to discover exactly what nutrient or nutrients (or lack thereof) is responsible for our nutritional demise.

So what do we propose (we being Michael Pollan and myself)?

Don’t worry about it so much.

Yes, of course, it’s great to know what foods contain Vitamin C so that we don’t all get scurvy and to know that saturated fat raises blood cholesterol and to know fiber’s role in the digestive system, but this approach of focusing on nutrients as opposed to food (what Pollan calls “nutritionism”) has gotten us pretty much nowhere in preventing chronic disease.

What is very clear, however, as I mentioned above, is that the Western diet is associated with exponentially more obesity and chronic disease than any traditional diet. It’s important to note as well that traditional diets vary hugely in their macronutrient composition: the traditional Japanese diet is very low-fat and very high carb, while the Mediterranean diet can be up to 40% fat, mostly from olive oil. The French traditionally eat what we’d consider high proportions of cheese and bread and wine, while Brazilians’ staples are beans and rice. It’s the rare vegetarian that lives in Germany, while most Indians are vegetarian. I think you get my point: people subsisting on a variety of varied, minimally processed diets got on for generations without developing anywhere near the rates of chronic illnesses that our civilization is now experiencing.

What I’m saying is that we should stop worrying about whether it’s the fat or the carbs or the protein or the fiber or the omega-3s. I doubt we will ever be able to completely understand the impact on our physiology of the complex system of the myriad of chemical compounds that make up our food, and definitely not with our reductionist scientific method. We know what caused our health problems, and I don’t mean specifically–what we know for sure is that it all went down when we switched from our traditional diets to the Western diet. The people who are the healthiest tend to follow Michael Pollan’s three rules that have become the mantra of the food movement:

  1. Eat food
  2. Not too much
  3. Mostly plants

I literally couldn’t have said it better myself. Forget about the nutrients; you’ll be happier and healthier if you just try to eat a variety of fresh, real, mainly plant-based foods and try to prepare them yourself most of the time. From now on, whenever anyone asks me what to do to eat healthy (it happens more than you think) I’m going to recommend In Defense of Food. Mr. Pollan, once again you’ve outdone yourself.

Thoughts?

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2 thoughts on “Forget About Nutrients

  1. I agree with the basic idea here. Whole foods are the complete package making the obsession with nutrients unnecessary. Not a fan of Michael Pollan though. He’s a proponent of “happy meat” and I don’t think there’s such a thing as long as animals are bred to be violently killed in their youth (even on “happy farms”). Plus it’s wholly unsustainable so why put it out there as a solution?

    • From my perspective, the jury’s still out on whether any degree of meat production is unsustainable, but I definitely understand your view about the ethics of eating animals. It’s a nasty business no matter how you swing it. Thanks for your comments!

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