What do you see in this picture?
What I see and what you see may be totally different. Here is what most Americans see in the picture above.
Not as appetizing, is it? You’re that asshole. What was once a nice meal to be shared among friends is now reduced to good vs bad nutritional bullshit. The joy of the meal is lost as the stress of what you can and cannot eat is expressed to all of your friends who won’t tell you how much of an ass you sound like. The meal, the food, and the setting represent the outside objective world. The 2nd picture is nutrition ideology, or nutritionism. It is a lens that you have in your brain that interprets the flow of information coming in. Our nutrition obsessed culture has bestowed upon us these very lenses, and it’s a flawed, subjective viewpoint. When you identify with a specific dietary ideology like paleo, raw food diet, atkins, or the slew of others that change your perceptions of foods even more dramatically, it separates you from reality that much more. This is an act of nutritionism.
Nutritionism is like taking the picture of food above and inspecting each item with a big magnifying lens. Instead of a plate of cheese and crackers which you may or may not enjoy, we have the burdensome anxiety of all of that nutritional science you saw online, read in a book, talked about among peers, debated about on social media, and adopted from any diet fads. Are those gluten-free crackers? Are they Non-GMO and 100% organic? Are there added sugars to the crackers? Cheese is now ‘as addictive as crack’(2), the host is basically drugging us!? Regardless, is the cheese from grass-fed cows? I don’t eat carbs, so the crackers are out of the question! Fat is now good for you and so is protein, so I’ll have some cheese, but it is basically crack(It isn’t). I think I’ll just skip the cheese and crackers. What does Paleo tell me to eat?
This is a mindset, and its a shitty one at that. While we are too busy investigating and obsessing about the finer details of food, we are missing the bigger, complete picture. You are probably like most over stressed Americans. Nutritionism adds to that stress and its entirely in your head. If you are looking to optimize your health, do not obsess about these finer details, in the grand scheme of things it wont help, and may actually deter your good intentions. The healthiest people and cultures in the world…do not give a crap what the carb to protein ratio is, they don’t care about which foods contain reservatrol, and they don’t know what a low carb diet is. Food is for enjoyment and the companionship of friends and family not utility or prestige.
Take this field of view picture and apply it to our perspectives in terms of nutrition. The wide (24mm) view is of a food landscape, a table of food for example. The narrow (200mm) view is of all of the macro, micro, vitamin, mineral, and chemical make-up of the food we see. I am not denying the necessity of understanding our foods nutritional make-up. The problem exists in how we apply that knowledge, this is the critique of nutritionism. To understand nutritional science is one thing, to maintain that tunnel vision for our solutions to all of our nutritional problems is another. The wider viewpoint is capable of targeting more important issues, like behaviors. We have found that the narrow view of nutritionism creates more problems than had existed prior.
A problem that arises from this dissection of food is the ‘Unweaving of the Rainbow’. Science now explains to us how a rainbow forms and what it is. We have a very detailed understanding of rainbows. This is a good thing as it explains what was once unknown phenomenon and by scientifically answering the ‘whys’ of rainbows we can dismiss any paranormal explanations. We’ve inspected the rainbow with our magnifying glass and can now zoom back out and enjoy its beauty. To stay in that mode of scientific inquiry and explanation, misses the beauty. Just as when we have obsessed over the finer details of nutrition without stepping back, we’ve completely missed what food truly provides for us.
The objective in the narrow view of nutritionism is that food provides us with energy, nutrition, vitamins and minerals, so we can survive and be in good health. When all you know is the brick and mortar of food, the purpose of it is constrained to utility. Ask google ‘what is the purpose of food?’ and you will get the narrow answer of ‘nutrition’ and ‘health’. Food in this perspective has a limited function and purpose.
Major problems have come to be since nutritionism has become more prevalent. Since ‘good food’ is now defined by its nutritional content of protein, ‘good fats’, vitamins, and minerals, we can add those nutrients to manufactured foods and supplements to sell more products. Now, every isle of your grocery store has packaged foods trying to sell itself to you. It isn’t just cereal anymore, its fortified with whole grains, high protein, and essential vitamins and minerals. Therefore, cereal becomes a health food. Those breakfast bars are now low calorie, high protein, and low fat, ie. a health food. Protein bars by which the name says it all, ‘protein’, must be good for me. What becomes most important to the general public is that you are getting your protein, your vitamins, your minerals. Limit your sugar intake, and the keep the fat content low. Go for low calorie foods. ‘It says low calorie’, but is it? Compared to what? 6 donuts? Sure, its low calorie. Are protein bars and fortified cereals health food? Compared to what? A Big Mac, large fries and soda? Sure, it’s a health food. The labels we apply to food regarding it’s healthiness, goodness or badness for you, are not black and white. Foods are not inherently good or bad. There is a broad context, there is a spectrum.
What modern science is discovering is shocking to the nutrition industry. By themselves, vitamins and antioxidents may not be inherently good. Eating foods that contain them (especially whole versions) seems to be better than in supplement form, which may be counter productive. It has been discovered that mortality rates increase with vitamin and antioxidant supplementation during cancer treatments. This tells us that nutrients on their own may be less beneficial compared to whole foods that contain these nutrients. (1)
The bigger picture of food is much more elaborate. While utility, survival, and maximal health are good goals, it reduces food to functionally good or bad, based on these rules. But food is much more than this. Food brings people together. Food acts as a language to express cultural history. Food is an art. Food can be a shared experience. Food is a de-stressor. Food is so much more than its nutritional function. Step back and see how great food can be. I love the sensation of food, the aroma, the combination of spices, the taste, the effort and process of cooking. While as a nutritionist and coach, I know there is function, there is utility, and there is purpose, but I will always (and I encourage you to do so too) enjoy food first and foremost. Do not stress the small stuff.
It is not to say eat whatever you like, let your goals dictate what you eat. If you go outside of that boundary, so be it. Let it be. Enjoy that moment and move on. There is much more to life than your protein and vitamins or beating yourself up over that 1 meal in the 98,550 meals(based on 3 meals per day for 90 years) you will eat in your entire lifetime.
While special cases exist and breaking down the dietary requirements for individuals should never go away. It doesn’t need to be so mainstream. To the general public, you are not a special needs case. Nutritionists should focus less on the finer details and more on the behavioral patterns. Targeting the mindset and behaviors of our clients will prove to be more beneficial than the hyper-elaboration of nutritionism and the labeling of ‘good foods’ and ‘bad foods’. In being a coach for 10 years and becoming a nutritionist I have heard so much unnecessary crap about food. Everyday is a battle. The conflict exists because of nutritionism and honestly, it hasn’t much helped the culture. Rather it has created more confusion which promotes more diet books, supplements, and nutritionists. We have essentially created a market out of complexity. The deeper we go, the more noise that exists, the greater the confusion.
The choice is yours on how you want to observe food. As a nutrionist or coach, the choice is yours on how you want to battle obesity and ill health. Over-analysis, specified nutritional programs, the good and bad foods, and hyper-nutritional criticism might make you sound really smart, and might confuse your customers so they will take the bait, but its a limited understanding of the effects of food in the broader view. Instead of cookie cutter programs and gross misunderstandings of nutrition, apply your talents in case by case scenarios. The finer details may be useful in some situations, in others, targeting the behavior and mindset is more important. Might not be an easy sell, but it sure as hell will be more useful.
(1) Vitamins and Cancer Risk- https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/vitamins-and-cancer-risk/
(2) Cheese Really is Crack- http://www.latimes.com/food/dailydish/la-dd-cheese-addictive-drugs-20151022-story.html
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