Those who know me know that I’m a basketball girl, not a football girl. Maybe that’s why at a Super Bowl XLI party in 2007 I found myself enthralled by a New York Times Magazine article instead of watching the game.
As my friends ate chili and drank beers I devoured Michael Pollan’s landmark essay “Unhappy Meals.” I don’t remember who won the game, but after that day I never looked at food or nutrition the same.
That afternoon was the first time I’d encountered the term nutritionism, an ideology based on the concept that we can understand the healthfulness of a food if we understand what nutrients it contains. In nutritionism calcium = healthy bones. Omega-3 = healthy brains. Saturated fat = unhealthy hearts. The delivery mechanism of the nutrients is irrelevant, all that matters is the molecules.
As a scientist and life-long dieter, I had swallowed the nutritionism ideology hook, line and sinker. But as I sat on my friend’s sofa reading Pollan’s words, my understanding of nutrition––and in many ways my whole universe––underwent a monumental and irrevocable shift.
Over a span of 30 minutes all the inconsistencies, contradictions, and frustrations that I had encountered with food and my body suddenly made sense. I realized that what I’d considered to be “healthy food” was the farthest thing from it, and that true healthy food was as foreign to me as if it were from another planet.
I had always blamed myself for not cracking the code and getting it right. If I was eating low-fat or low-carb or high-protein and I still wasn’t losing weight then clearly I wasn’t doing enough, because the science couldn’t be wrong.
But Pollan explained that the science wasn’t to blame, only how it was used to inform our eating behaviors. It was the nutritionism ideology that had been leading me astray, and because of it I had inadvertently spent 15 years using the exact wrong approach.
Nutritionism, I learned, was the missing link between my knowledge and my experience in the real world.
So how should I be eating?
Pollan made it so simple it made my head spin: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
Nothing about carbs or fat or protein. Nothing about calories. No invisible food components that are good or evil. Instead he wanted me to shop at the farmers market and cook my own food, skills I had only recently started developing. I should eat with the seasons. I should eat foods I enjoy.
Really? It was hard to believe, but it still rang true. Those seven words required some explaining, but at the end of the day it was really that simple.
I would have considered it heresy if his argument didn’t match so well with my experiences dieting from Slimfast to South Beach. It seemed that no matter what nutrient I decided to cut out I lost weight, but only temporarily. My entire life had been a constant battle between my desire to eat the “right” things and my desire to eat what my body wanted.
In an impossible situation there are no winners. So I decided to change my approach to weight loss and embrace Real Food.
I didn’t know it yet, but this was the day I became a foodist.
Two years later on March 25, 2009 I launched Summer Tomato. A few weeks after that Penguin published an expanded version of Pollan’s article as a book called In Defense of Food, which I still consider the best explanation of healthy eating available in print.
Now nearly seven years later Pollan and PBS have released a documentary based on In Defense of Food, which is every bit as inspiring as that original article that changed my life.
In it Pollan explains nutritionism and how it has led us away from naturally nutritious diets to staggering levels of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. More important, he explains how to use Real Food to achieve better health through his simple axiom: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
Healthy eating can seem bafflingly complex from the outside, but Pollan is able to distill the facts in a way that brings them all together into his elegant thesis.
He explains how advances in nutrition science led to the nutritionism ideology, which fueled misguided government policies, and gave the food industry control over our dinner plates.
He touches on the sciences of metabolism, digestion, heart disease, and behavioral psychology without getting too technical or wonky.
He even address socioeconomic issues and other aspects of culture that impact our daily eating habits and make it difficult (but possible) to change our national trajectory.
If you’ve already read the book, there is still tremendous value in watching the documentary as there are several scientific updates and extended explanations worth learning. It’s also really entertaining, with the parables and personal stories alone making it worth your time.
In Defense of Food is the most comprehensive explanation of the relationship between food and health you can find in under two hours, an incredible resource that you can literally watch online for free right now.
Even better, watch it with someone who still lives under the trance of nutritionism and is frustrated with the results.
What are your thoughts on nutritionism?