Nutritionist vs. Nutritionism

Our host introduced me to Michael Pollan, author of several best selling books about food.  When the word “nutritionist” was connected to my name, Mr. Pollan raised his brow and said, “I hope I don’t offend you.”

I get a reaction from many people when they find out my profession. Maybe it’s the irony of my name but I think being in the presence of a nutritionist makes a lot of people uncomfortable, over-the-top nervous to share a meal with one. I guess they are afraid that I will judge them for how, what or how much they eat. So I have my standard reply—“I’m a liberal dietitian,” I say, hoping to ease their worries. But I don’t think most people are concerned that they will offend me.

On this occasion, I was sharing a meal with Michael Pollan along with a banquet table full of university folks who were in some way connected with sponsoring Mr. Pollan’s visit to our campus. It was a festive meal planned to feature foods from our great state. The salad greens, radishes, fingerling potatoes, beets and parsnips were grown in the high tunnels (hoop houses) of the Student Organic Farm; the wine, both red and white, from the Keweenaw Peninsula; the shrimp from a local farmer just 10 miles from campus. Even the butter pats were dressed for the occasion, sporting the Spartan seal to give at least the impression of being local.

So why would I be offended? Nutritionism. It’s a term Mr. Pollan adopted to give a proper name to what has happened to our food. As Mr. Pollan explains it, adding the “ism” takes nutrition from being a science to being an ideology. Beginning in the 1970’s, foods took a back seat to nutrients. Depending on the prevailing research, nutrients are added to foods to make them fit the newly discovered health benefits.

There are four premises to nutritionism:

  • Nutrients are the important reason to eat food.
  • Experts are the driving force in our food culture.
  • The world of food can be divided into good and evil.
  • The whole point of eating is health.

The story of margarine (or oleo, as Mom calls it) exemplifies nutritionism. Margarine came onto the market as a cheap substitute for butter. It wasn’t long before the food manufacturers convinced consumers that the “good nutrients” in margarine made it better than butter. Each new scientific discovery has emerged in its malleable sticks (or tubs) to give consumers more unsaturated fats, less cholesterol, more vitamin A, more mono-saturates, less trans fats—whatever the nutritionism-practicing nutritionists ordered. Margarine became “good” and butter became “evil.” The dairy case was so full of spreads, it was a dilemma to choose which to take home. Yet all along, butter tasted far better.

The butter-margarine conundrum and thousands of others like it have made eating complicated. As a consumer, if you listen to the science or give credence to food package claims, you can become confused about what you should eat. Yet we are apt to eat what we were brought up eating (for me, the exception being oleo). Families try to feed their members well, to the best of their abilities. Gathered together to break bread and share a meal, family members gain a whole lot more than nutrition.

Mr. Pollan tries to simplify eating with his mantra, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” In his book, In Defense of Food, he persuades eaters to avoid “food like substances” and rather choose whole fresh foods. On the surface, this seems to simplify food selection. In reality, it’s a lot for people to trip over. It doesn’t give consideration to their circumstances. His latest book, Food Rules, is another clever look at our food supply; all tolled he came up with sixty-four rules. In my book, rules complicate eating.

Through his books and public appearances, Mr. Pollan has made his audience aware of what they are eating. It was thrilling to see a packed house at the Wharton Center for this World View Lecture Series. The audience was not disappointed. All in all, his speech was very entertaining.

Was I offended? Not in the least! Dispense with the rules and we would see eye to eye. For clarity, I’d like to change my title to “Eating Reassurance Expert.” Not all nutritionists practice nutritionism. Many of us recognize the joy of eating.

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1 comment so far

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Laura Klein. Laura Klein said: RT @PollanNews: "Nutritionist vs. Nutritionism « The Joy of Eating" http://bit.ly/dhN7Sx #michaelpollan […]


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