Disease Proof

NY Times: Michael Pollan on Nutritionism

Hopefully you had the opportunity to read Michael Pollan’s recent article in The New York Times Magazine. In it, he proposes lots of reasons for America’s dietary indiscretions; misinformation, bad science, and the rise of industrialized food, to name a few.

Needless to say, my Fuhrman-senses were tingling. Especially concerning the concept of “nutritionism.” According to Pollan, “The term nutritionism refers to the widely shared but unexamined assumption that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient.” Meaning it’s up to scientists to discover the hidden healthful particles (nutrients) in food and then this will help us make informed decisions about which foods appropriately fuel our bodies and give us sustained health. Sounds good, right?

Well, as Pollan explains, historically these types of scientific discoveries—and their good intentions—tend to get mucked up along the way and ultimately become misconstrued. One might even argue bastardized. More from the article:
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 McGovern’s 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 by the late ’80s a golden era of food science was upon us. 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 bran’s moment on the dietary stage didn’t 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. (Here comes omega-3!)


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 can’t easily change its nutritional stripes (though rest assured the genetic engineers are hard at work on the problem). So far, at least, you can’t 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. That’s why when the Atkins mania hit the food industry, bread and pasta were 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 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.
Now if you ask me, Pollan hits the nail right on the head. All this time and money wasted on figuring out which nutrient is going to be today’s fountain of youth. And when one is discovered, food-marketers from across the country just want to know one thing, “How can we use it to make people believe our mass-produced junk food is healthy?” Meanwhile fresh fruits and vegetables are staring us right in the face. Go ahead, let out a little sigh.

If you’re familiar with Michael Pollan’s work you know that he strongly supports a vegetable-based diet for health, disease-prevention, and longevity. So I kind of figured Dr. Fuhrman would agree with him here. And he does for the most part, but, unlike Pollan, Dr. Fuhrman doesn’t feel our grandparents were the best eaters. From the article, here are Pollan’s comments:
The sheer novelty and glamour of the Western diet, with its 17,000 new food products introduced every year, and the marketing muscle used to sell these products, has overwhelmed the force of tradition and left us where we now find ourselves: relying on science and journalism and marketing to help us decide questions about what to eat. Nutritionism, which arose to help us better deal with the problems of the Western diet, has largely been co-opted by it, used by the industry to sell more food and to undermine the authority of traditional ways of eating. You would not have read this far into this article if your food culture were intact and healthy; you would simply eat the way your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents taught you to eat. The question is, Are we better off with these new authorities than we were with the traditional authorities they supplanted? The answer by now should be clear.
Personally, despite this little disparity, I still think Michael Pollan is onto something—something good. For me, it all comes down to filtering out bad information. And yes, that takes steely resolve. You have to differentiate junk science from good science, marketing from the truth, and perhaps most important of all, learn to ignore dangerous reactionary claims. Dr. Fuhrman’s thoughts on Pollan’s piece should help explain where I’m coming from:
I think in the future more and more intelligent people will realize the message is clear. And certainly there will be more and more examples of others parroting a similar message to mine.


Eat less, eat mostly plants, don't eat processed foods. We agree. These are the main points.

I still don't think our grandparents ate too great, so we can do better than ever before with what we know about nutrition today. Too bad there are so many nuts out there confusing this issue, (Atkin's, Weston Price, Zone, Eat For Your Blood Type, Dr. Mercola's Metabolic Typing, Glycemic Index) leading the addicted masses into more and more confusion, so they miss the main points.
Maybe that’s what’s happening? All these fad diets get the press because they fly in the face of conventional thinking. And why not? It’s common knowledge that the standard American diet isn’t working. Don’t believe me? Just look at the obesity rates in this country, or the prevalence of cancer and heart disease. If you read these types of news reports for too long, you’d want to try something radical too!

In Eat to Live Dr. Fuhrman remarks that he doesn’t feel everyone will embrace his vegetable-based diet, mainly because of the influence of outside factors. After all, why meet the problem head on when you can devour an entire box of “enriched” chocolate breakfast cereal or have some doctor write you another prescription? I felt now was an appropriate time to mention this:
The social and economic forces that are pulling our population toward obesity and disease will not be defeated by one book preaching about achieving superior health with nutritional excellence. The “good life” will continue to bring most Americans to a premature grave. This plan is not for everyone. I don not expect the majority of individuals to live this healthfully. However, they should at least make that decision by being aware of the facts rather than having their food choices shaped by inaccurate information or the food manufacturers. Some people will choose to smoke cigarettes, eat unhealthfully, or pursue other reckless habits.
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