The Age of Nutritionism & Pitfalls of the Western Diet Drex Earle, Ph.D. April 7, 2008

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"An apple a day keeps the doctor away." Such sage advice Mom used to give us. Amazingly, that old adage still holds true...but tragically, many of us are missing the point.

Just ask yourself the last time you ate an apple. Have you had one in the last week? The last month? If you really tried, do you think you could even eat an apple everyday?

If you're a bit mortified by your answers don't be too hard on yourself believe it or not, you're not alone and not entirely to blame. The truth is that the apple despite its health benefits, alluring varieties and gimmicky marketing monikers (Red Delicious, anyone?) is no longer the celebrity of the supermarket aisle. Whatever luster or cache it once possessed has long been stripped away, and the same holds true for a laundry list of other natural foods known to be good for you: oranges, watermelons, spinach, know the list. As of late, they've taken a backseat to a whole new kind of nutrition "nutritionism" for lack of a better term one that's crept up on us over the last few decades, without many of us even noticing.

The suggestion that whole foods are no longer the bedrock of our diet may seem counter intuitive, perhaps even foolish, you might say. Surely, fruits, vegetables and whole grains are making a comeback, right? People are more attuned to their health and these foods are the foundation of any healthy lifestyle. Plus, they're garnering scientific scrutiny and media attention like never before. All valid and factually accurate points.

But the truth, however, lies much deeper beneath the surface. There's a subtle flaw in this counterargument, a nuance that explains our new "Age of Nutritionism" in a nutshell. Think for a second that it's not these natural "foods" (fruits, vegetables and the like) forging their way back into our Western diet. Instead, it's their nutrients.


Today, real food has become obsolete. The types of things our parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents used to eat on a regular basis have, in the last quarter century or so, been replaced with a whole new type of nutrition one in which synthetic, chemically-infused, food- like substances focused primarily on nutritional content (calories, fat grams, vitamin C, etc.), have increasingly taken center-stage, touting impressive-sounding health claims and ingredients most consumers are hard-pressed to recognize. During this time there's been real debate and increasing skepticism about the role these 21st century foods should and already do play in our American diet, along with the impact they're having on the displacement of our real food supply. The result is that today, we find ourselves in a dizzying maze of deceptive marketing and mock- nutrition that makes it increasingly difficult to find products our bodies naturally crave.

This new era of nutritionism has taken root thanks to several (now widely accepted, but arguably erroneous) premises. First, is the position that food is not as healthful in its natural state as the nutrients contained within it. In other words, the whole is somehow inferior to the sum of its parts. Explained another way: nutrients can be stripped from or added to food to make it more or less healthy.

Secondly, is the notion that nutrients themselves undetectable and seemingly incomprehensible to the layman are best left to interpretation by food researchers, rendering scientists the requisite gatekeepers when it comes to nutritional wisdom.

Finally, there's a belief that food is simply a means to an end a way of achieving and maintaining physical health and its cultural and social implications are cursory in comparison.

How'd we get here?

So, who perpetuated these myths? Who hi-jacked our food supply? And who has been profiting from the misinformation and collective ignorance we have about our own diet?

Well, akin to the dilemma facing our perception of what truly constitutes healthy food, here too, we must look deeper beneath the surface to get closer to the truth. The fact of the matter is that, much of the nutritionism movement we see today can be attributed to three special interests nutrition scientists, the food industry and our own government. It seems the very entities designed to guide us towards better eating habits, have instead led us astray over the years, no matter how inadvertent or subtle their misguidance has been.

Understanding the biochemical interplay between food and our own health, the scientific community has become the front line for data-based nutritional information. And as a result, it has become too powerful much too quickly. Today, new research findings are not only adopted with staggering rapidity, but they give rise to a host of artificial foods (Powerbars, vitamin-enriched sodas, etc.) as well as a new breed of nutritionally-enhanced superfoods high fiber soy milk, low-calorie orange juice, omega-three- infused eggs all of which the health effects are still unknown.

A perfect example of the scientific community's widespread influence has been the adoption of the "lipid hypothesis." (If you've ever thought twice about your cholesterol, the fat content of your lunch or your risk of heart disease than you're at least indirectly familiar with this theory.) The idea that dietary fat and cholesterol contribute to atherosclerosis was a philosophy responsible for shifts in the Western diet a movement away from butter to margarine in the 1950s, an abandonment of whole eggs and red meat due (to their high cholesterol and saturated fat content) and the low-fat craze that consumed us in the 1990s are all evidence of this.

Looking back, we've learned that trans fats in margarine are far worse than anything in butter; eggs and red meat are relative nutritional powerhouses; and "low-fat" may actually be the reason we're more obese and overweight than ever before.

The Food Pyramid

With regard to the collective influence of food industry and government, look no further than the food pyramid and the dietary guidelines that accompany it. If you take a good, hard look at how it's built, you'll notice that the base of the famous pyramid is populated with whole grains, breads, cereals, pasta and rice. Vegetables and fruits take second and third place, respectively.

Perhaps what's most interesting about the pyramid however, is that it seemingly hasn't been engineered with consumer health in mind, but rather U.S. agricultural interests.

Not surprisingly, wheat, corn and soy are the backbone of our crop industry and these constituents exert influence on the USDA. Government contributions may not get you a rubber stamp from the USDA, but prime placement on the food pyramid is still fair game apparently.

Here are three basic rules that can help you transcend Nutritionism:


I know this may not seem like enlightening advice, but the beauty of this mantra is in its simplicity. Just imagine not having to worry about all the calories, fat or fiber in your meal all you have to do is seek out real, natural, whole foods instead.

So, how can you tell the difference? Well, start with a food's list of ingredients. If you see anything you don't recognize, is unpronounceable or has more than four syllables, then you should probably avoid it. Also, look at the number of ingredients; no more than five is a good rule of thumb.

Also, beware of ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oil, maltodextrin, mono- and di-glycerides, guar gum, artificial colors and flavors.

Try segueing all the energy you typically reserve for scrutinizing "Nutrition Facts" and turn a more critical eye to what's actually in the food you're eating.


Try eating like the French: pay more, but eat less...and enjoy the experience. One of the most baffling paradoxes about their society is how slim, fit and disease-immune they seem to be, despite a rich, fatty and calorie-laden diet. Actually the French diet is first and foremost based on whole foods, but perhaps more importantly, it's not centered on nutrients, but taste, satiety and pleasure instead.

Furthermore, scientific studies teach us that calorie- restriction is the key to a long and virtually disease- free life. More food equals more cell division, faster aging, greater propensity to free-radical attack and in turn, higher susceptibility to chronic diseases like diabetes and cancer. Not to mention, the less we eat, the less pesticides, steroids and other harmful pharmaceuticals we expose ourselves to. Plus, we save money and can allocate more to higher-quality, healthier foods.


Almost every nutrition scientist you talk to, every diet book you read and every food-science study that comes out, will highlight the virtues of a plant-based diet (fruits and vegetables, predominantly). And this is not particularly surprising considering how loaded plants are with good stuff.

From the micronutrient perspective, you've got antioxidants (vitamins C and E), selenium, omega-three and six fatty acids, all your B-vitamins (except B-12) and vitamin A.

On the macronutrient side, plants are less energy-dense and they have less saturated fat and cholesterol than animal products. Meat does have its place of course all the essential amino acids, B-12, etc. but plants should be the foundation.

* Ideas presented in this article are covered in greater depth in the book, "In Defense of Food" by Michael Pollan

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