Nutritionism

Hilary Kinavey and Dana Sturtevant, Be Nourished founders
Hilary Kinavey and Dana Sturtevant, Be Nourished founders

By Dana Sturtevant and Hillary Kinavey

In a culture that emphasizes “nutritionism”—a reductionist way of thinking about food that assumes the whole point of eating is to maintain and promote bodily health—it is easy to forget that food is so much more than the sum of its nutrients.

The term “nutritionism” has been coined to describe the fixation on nutrients at the expense of content and experiential knowledge of food and eating. The resulting nutrition confusion has confounded people’s ideas about what to eat (Coveney 2006; Scrinis 2008). Michael Pollan says, “As the “ism” suggests, it is not a scientific subject but an ideology. Ideologies are ways of organizing large swaths of life and experience under a set of shared but unexamined assumptions. This quality makes an ideology particularly hard to see, at least while it’s exerting its hold on your culture.”

Nutritionism has a strong hold on our culture. It seems impossible to get through a day without hearing someone’s opinion about what constitutes “healthy eating.” You see, nutritionism promotes dualistic thinking: if there is a good nutrient, then there must be a bad one. People are enthusiastic about one food while demonizing another. This way of thinking is what leads to food fads.

Low fat was a fad in the early nineties. By the late nineties, it was all about low carb, high protein diets. Remember The South Beach Diet? Atkins?

What are the latest food fads?

The Paleo Diet. (Yes, it is another fad diet!)

Avoiding gluten is another trend right now. So is talking about sugar as an addictive substance, despite there being a lack of evidence to support it.

People doing paleo think the vegans don’t have it right, and vice versa. People who eat macrobiotic think those that only eat raw food are wrong, and vice versa. One person wants the tops of the carrots in their juice while another says you have to cut the tops of the carrots off at least an inch from the top or you are being poisoned. POISONED!

The truth: nutrition is a young science and we are only beginning to understand it. And the science we do have often contradicts itself eventually. When health professionals, the media and our culture emphasize the quantity of nutrients contained in foods, what they are doing is emphasizing only the nutrients that are recognized—the ones we know about right now.

Years ago, the benefits of a phyto-nutrient called lycopene (found in tomatoes) were discovered. So, of course, a supplement company decided to sell lycopene in pill form. But research found that taking a lycopene supplement didn’t have the same health promoting benefits as eating a diet rich in tomatoes. It seems that when you remove the lycopene from the tomato, it’s no longer a powerful anti-oxidant. There is something about eating the lycopene within the tomato.

There is still so much to be learned.

And there is an entire industry—sometimes called the “Nutritional Industrial Complex”—waiting to make money off of our gullibility.

Nutritionism causes people to make food decisions solely from the knowledge in their head (put there from so-called “experts,” the media, etc.), while completely ignoring the body’s innate wisdom and the meaning of food.

Animals eat, but human beings dine. We commune through food. We come together around the table to connect, to celebrate, to grieve.

Food is security. Food is family and friends. Food allows people to express pride, and it becomes a means to nourish and comfort others.

In the book The Meaning of Food, Marcus Samuelsson writes, “A meal is not about food; it is about the interchanges and interactions that go on around food. We do not sit at the table only to eat, but to eat together. The social interaction over a meal is as substantive as the nutrition. Through food, we express love. We bring comfort and hope. We forge new relationships and reinforce old bonds. Food reaffirms not only our humanity but the joy of being alive.”

Nutritionism causes unnecessary food worry and makes eating far more complicated than it needs to be. The desire to take care of our food needs diminishes when we are only focused on eating the “right thing.” And if you have a history of chronic dieting or disordered eating, you might feel conflicted about almost every single food available for your consumption.

Ellyn Satter says, “When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition fails.” When we shift the focus to pleasure—what sounds good and what we like to eat—most people find a renewed interest in food planning, shopping and cooking. So let go of your ideas of right/wrong, good/bad, healthy/unhealthy. Take what the so-called “nutrition experts” say with a grain of salt and start tasting your food again. Do you like what you are eating? Does it taste good?

You know why these are important questions to ask? Because when the foods you are eating taste good, and they make you feel better, you are far more likely to sustain that way of eating. And your body benefits from what you do consistently over time, not what you can do for one week or for a “Whole 30” days.

In 2006, Hilary Kinavey, MS, LPC and Dana Sturtevant, MS, RD co-founded Be Nourished, a revolutionary business helping people heal body dissatisfaction and reclaim body trust. Hilary is a licensed professional counselor, a Certified Daring Way™ facilitator, and a transformational workshop leader. Dana is a registered dietitian, Motivational Interviewing trainer, and Kripalu Yoga teacher. After many years of deep listening, learning, and working at Be Nourished, Hilary and Dana co-created Body Trust® Wellness, a curriculum to encourage movement toward a compassionate model of radical self-care to heal body shame and patterns of chronic dieting and disordered eating. From 2007-2012, Hilary and Dana were adjunct instructors for the Eating Disorder Certificate Program at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Hilary and Dana are popular speakers on topics such as Health at Every Size®, intuitive eating, and body respect in health care communities, and regular contributors to the Huffington Post. For more information, visit benourished.org.