September 15, 2008


Category: Feasting :: Permalink

As eaters we find ourselves increasingly in the grip of a Nutritional Industrial Complex — comprised of well-meaning, if error-prone, scientists and food marketers only too eager to exploit every shift in the nutritional consensus.  Together, and with some crucial help from the government, they have constructed an ideology of nutritionism that, among other things, has convinced us of three pernicious myths: that what matters most is not the food but the “nutrient”; that because nutrients are invisible and incomprehensible to everyone but scientists, we need expert help in deciding what to eat; and that the purpose of eating is to promote a narrow concept of physical health.  Because food in this view is foremost a matter of biology, it follows that we must try to eat “scientifically” — by the nutrient and the number and under the guidance of experts. 

If such an approach to food doesn’t strike you as the least bit strange, that is probably because nutritionist thinking has become so pervasive as to be invisible.  We forget that, historically, people have eaten for a great many reasons other than biological necessity.  Food is also about pleasure, about community, about family and spirituality, about our relationship to the natural world, and about expressing our identity.  As long as humans have been taking meals together, eating has been as much about culture as it has been about biology.

That eating should be foremost about bodily health is a relatively new and, I think, destructive idea — destructive not just of the pleasure of eating, which would be bad enough, but paradoxically of our health as well.  Indeed, no poeple on earth worry more about the health consequences of their food choices than we Americans do — and no people suffer from as many diet-related health problems.  We are becoming a nation of orthorexics: people with an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.

The scientists haven’t tested the hypothesis yet, but I’m willing to bet that when they do they’ll find an inverse correlation between the amount of time people spend worrying about nutrition and their overall health and happiness.  This is, after all, the implicit lesson of the French paradox, so-called not by the French (Quel paradoxe?) but by American nutritionists, who can’t fathom how a people who enjoy their food as much as the French do, and blithely eat so many nutrients deemed toxic by nutritionists, could have substantially lower rates of heart disease than we do on our elaborately engineered low-fat diets.  Maybe it’s time we confronted the American paradox: a notably unhealthy population preoccupied with nutrition and diet and the idea of eating healthily. — Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, pp. 7-9.

The shift from “food” to “nutrients,” which Pollan documents more fully in the first chapter of the book, interests me, especially because it leads to the second myth Pollan identifies, namely, the idea that we need scientists and experts to teach us how to eat.

That development, mind you, applies just as much to people who are into “natural foods.”  You’ll meet people in those camps, too, who talk at length about nutrients, about how they have to eat this and that and avoid the other, about whether this is the “right” sort of butter or salt or milk or water, about why raw food is best, about the all-important missing nutrient that someone has just discovered to be a veritable fountain of youth, and so forth.

But in all of these discussions, food is reduced to its biological role and is seen as a conglomeration of nutrients, so that we depend on someone — whether a scientist or a dietician or the author of the latest “alternative” book to come out, but always someone who presented as an expert — to tell us what to eat. 

That someone, mind you, is never your mother or your grandmother.  And that, Pollan suggests, is because Americans, for the most part, unlike the Italians or the French or many others in the world, lack deep-rooted, long-standing traditions of food and eating and so we are blown hither and thither by every wind of “nutrient” doctrine.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:49 pm | Discuss (0)

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