What Is Nutritionism and Why Is It Making Us Fat?

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How often do you make choices about food based on its nutrient content?

It seems like the responsible thing to do, right? After all, scientists tell us that saturated fat and gluten are bad and things like vitamin C, fiber, and antioxidants are good. So, when products have a lot of the good stuff, and little to none of the bad stuff, that means they are the ones you should purchase. So, what’s the problem?

Well, the line of thinking behind these choices may be getting us into big trouble.

Nutritionism is a term coined by Dr. Gyorgy Scrinis, an expert in nutrition and food politics, to describe the way we’ve been making food choices in the past century. It is a simplistic way of thinking about food that tells us to choose what we eat based on things we can neither see nor understand without the help of a team of scientists and a well-stocked research lab. It involves a lot of trust in the people who are explaining to us which nutrients are good and which ones are bad. However, when we look back through the history of scientific food advice, it seems that trust may have been misguided.

The focus on nutrients has made it easy for food manufacturers to win us over with all sorts of health claims which mask the fact that their products are keeping us from eating what’s actually healthy: real food that came from the earth, not a lab, including a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and a moderate amount of fish and animal products.

Nutritionism and the Obesity Epidemic

The obesity epidemic is a modern problem linked to the increasing amount of highly processed and fattening foods in the western diet which is defined by lots of sugar, meat, and unnatural ingredients. The western diet includes things like soda, granola bars, margarine, bags of chips, fast food meals, too much red meat, and white bread. We know these highly processed foods are making us fat, but they are so pervasive that we all end up eating them from time to time which has landed us in a situation where most Americans are overweight, and over one-third are obese and the most common causes of death nowadays, like cancer and diabetes, are linked to unhealthy diet.

How We Got Here

In 1977 the first edition of The Dietary Goals for the United States was released by the U.S. Senate. At that time, heart disease was a major problem, and the documents were created to help guide Americans who wanted to choose healthier foods to ward off heart attacks. Scientists had noticed a connection between higher red meat consumption and heart disease, but because of opposition from the dairy and meat industries, the official message changed from “eat less meat” to the nutrient-focused message: “decrease consumption of animal fat, and choose meats […] which will reduce saturated fat intake.” The first message was clear, easy to understand and truthful whereas the second message was sneaky and open to interpretation.

Advertising Nutrients and the Over-Processing of Food

The official statement denouncing the specific nutrient, fat, opened up an incredibly successful advertising opportunity for food manufacturers. They could now whip up sugar-laden snacks and market them as healthy options as long as they kept the fat content down. By the 80’s and 90’s we were in a low-fat craze, and today low-fat is still a popular health claim.

Soon though, we realized that sugar and carbs were also a problem because they were fattening, and we started seeing “low-carb,” “no added sugar” products on the shelves. To meet our demands as consumers for tasty foods that were free of the bad nutrients, food producers doctored up complex recipes of sugar and fat substitutes so we would keep on buying.

Then yet again, we realized some of those substitutes were worse than the original nutrients we were trying to avoid. Trans fats, which are artificial but plant sourced, were presumed to be healthier than saturated fats, but now they have been proven to be even worse for our cardiovascular health than the animal fats we were avoiding. So now, we also have ads boasting “no trans-fats!”

For someone trying to eat healthily, the wildly changing trends in nutrition advice are maddening.

One of the unfortunate effects of marketing unhealthy foods with health claims is that we overeat. Multiple studies show that packaged food products with health claims cause us to eat more, underestimate the calories we’re eating, and feel less guilty than a similar product without the health claims. This effect contributes to the fact that we now eat about 600 more calories a day than we did back in the 60’s when processed foods were just starting off.

Tragically, decades of shifting nutrient-advice have resulted in a situation where 60 percent of our diets are made up of these scientifically altered foods, calorie consumption is way up, and there is widespread confusion about why we’re all getting fatter. We keep choosing food products which claim to be free of the bad ingredients, but it just doesn’t work.

What We Can Do 

First off – listen to your body’s incredible hunger and satiety cues. Your body is aching to send you healthy hints – so tune into the frequency of you.

The solution to the obesity epidemic may be as irritatingly simple as just switching off the manufactured food products and going back to eating real food. However, the steps we need to take to get to a point where all Americans have easy access to fresh natural foods are far from simple. Add to this the emotional eating epidemic that’s contributing to spiking rates of eating disorders – including binge eating disorder – and we remember that the solution is deeper than a diet and more complex than having healthier food at every neighborhood shop.

The food climate we live in today pushes us towards processed foods; they are the most widely available, heavily marketed, affordable, and convenient things to eat. It will take years to change that, but for now, we can start making individual choices that will both protect our own health, and positively influence the food market over time.

A Few Simple Steps

1. Forget about individual nutrients.

Information about which nutrients are good and which ones are bad has changed drastically over the years and that info hasn’t even proved very helpful for public health. Whole foods are more than just a combination of nutrients. Sure, sweet potatoes, for example, contain beta-carotene which is great, but they also contain a plethora of different chemicals which we haven’t discovered yet that provide us with healthy nutrition.

Instead of trying to keep up with cutting-edge nutrition science, let’s focus on eating real foods with natural origins, and trust that mother nature can keep providing us with what we need like she always has.

2. Stick to the perimeters of the grocery store.

Don’t bother with the center aisles which typically contain the most processed foods. The flashy packaging and health claims will tempt anyone into choosing processed products in lieu of the good stuff: fresh, real food. Stick to the perimeters where the fresh produce, fish, meat, and dairy products are kept.

3. Eat more plants.

The original message to eat less red meat from that 1977 document, The Dietary Goals for the United States, could have been helpful if it weren’t changed to focus on saturated fats. Eating red meat every day is unnecessary and the evidence it leads to cardiovascular problems is long established. We don’t have to get rid of red meat entirely, it is yummy and in small amounts, it won’t cause any serious harm, but we can certainly stand to reduce how much we’re eating it.

Instead of meat-based meals, focus more on choosing a wide variety of plant foods like fresh veggies, beans, whole grains, nuts, and fruits. Plants are incredibly nutritious and they also support healthy digestion.