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Nutrition vs Nutritionism

According to Michael Pollan nutritionism has taken over our thinking regarding the foods we eat. Nutritionism focuses on particular qualities – vitamins, minerals, protein, etc. – in foods instead of focusing on food itself…..

“In the case of nutritionism, the widely shared but unexamined assumption is that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient. From this basic premise flow several others. Since nutrients, as compared with foods, are invisible and therefore slightly mysterious, it falls to the scientists (and to the journalists through whom the scientists speak) to explain the hidden reality of foods to us. To enter a world in which you dine on unseen nutrients, you need lots of expert help.”

What is Pollan referring to? You know when you go to the grocery store and stand at the yogurt section, you see all sorts of ‘nutrition’ claims on the containers… contains inulin……25% less sugar……2 x protein……low fat……full-fat…….Icelandinc…….fiber………organic……dairy-free……..with calcium……non-GMO…….with vitamin D…….millions of live cultures…….THIS is nutritionism.

Nutritionism is the placing of importance on the constituents of the foods, not on eating wholefoods themselves. Dr. Mark Hyman says it this way:

“People don’t eat ingredients; they eat food. No nutrient acts in isolation. But pretending that they do plays into the food industry’s hands, allowing claims of benefits from this nutrient or that one, depending on what’s in fashion on any given day.”

A problem I have with nutritionism is its assumption we know all there is to know about food, health and nutrition. When I look back over my nutrition books from the first class I ever took at uni, some 23 years ago, there was a lot we didn’t know then and there will be a lot we don’t know now compared to 23 years into the future.

But, one thing does remain constant – eating real food is what’s important. The emphasis back then was on eating proper food to get enough vitamins and minerals, the emphasis now is to eat wholefoods to get enough microbes and fiber to support your gut microbiome, the emphasis in the future will be on eating food as it comes from nature for some other reason……but the focus will remain on food (not processed food-like substances).

Let me say this another way. There are traditional diets all over the world in cultures where people are healthy and live to old age, although these diets look dramatically different. The Inuit eat mostly fat in the form of blubber, the Masai eat mostly meat, blood and milk, others eat mostly plant foods, but they all eat food.

According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, the following are the general characteristics of traditional diets:

  1. The diets of healthy, nonindustrialized peoples contain no refined or denatured foods or ingredients, such as refined sugar or high fructose corn syrup; white flour; canned foods; pasteurized, homogenized, skim or lowfat milk; refined or hydrogenated vegetable oils; protein powders; synthetic vitamins; or toxic additives and artificial colorings.

  2. All traditional cultures consume some sort of animal food, such as fish and shellfish; land and water fowl; land and sea mammals; eggs; milk and milk products; reptiles; and insects. The whole animal is consumed—muscle meat, organs, bones and fat, with the organ meats and fats preferred.

  3. The diets of healthy, nonindustrialized peoples contain at least four times the minerals and water-soluble vitamins, and TEN times the fat-soluble vitamins found in animal fats (vitamin A, vitamin D and Activator X, now thought to be vitamin K2) as the average American diet.

  4. All traditional cultures cooked some of their food but all consumed a portion of their animal foods raw.

  5. Primitive and traditional diets have a high content of food enzymes and beneficial bacteria from lactofermented vegetables, fruits, beverages, dairy products, meats and condiments.

  6. Seeds, grains and nuts are soaked, sprouted, fermented or naturally leavened to neutralize naturally occurring anti-nutrients such as enzyme inhibitors, tannins and phytic acid.

  7. Total fat content of traditional diets varies from 30 percent to 80 percent of calories but only about 4 percent of calories come from polyunsaturated oils naturally occurring in grains, legumes, nuts, fish, animal fats and vegetables. The balance of fat calories is in the form of saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids.

  8. Traditional diets contain nearly equal amounts of omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids.

  9. All traditional diets contain some salt.

  10. All traditional cultures make use of animal bones, usually in the form of gelatin-rich bone broths.

  11. Traditional cultures make provisions for the health of future generations by providing special nutrient-rich animal foods for parents-to-be, pregnant women and growing children; by proper spacing of children; and by teaching the principles of right diet to the young.

Here we have a framework for constructing better health guidelines:

  1. Eat whole, unprocessed foods.

  2. Eat beef, lamb, game, organ meats, poultry and eggs from pasture-fed animals.

  3. Eat wild fish (not farm-raised), fish eggs and shellfish from unpolluted waters.

  4. Eat full-fat milk products from pasture-fed cows, preferably raw and/or fermented, such as raw milk, whole yogurt, kefir, cultured butter, full-fat raw cheeses and fresh and sour cream.

  5. Use animal fats, such as lard, tallow, egg yolks, cream and butter liberally.

  6. Use only traditional vegetable oils—extra virgin olive oil, expeller-expressed sesame oil, small amounts of expeller-expressed flax oil, and the tropical oils—coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil.

  7. Take cod liver oil regularly to provide at least 10,000 IU vitamin A and 1,000 IU vitamin D per day.

  8. Eat fresh fruits and vegetables, preferably organic. Use vegetables in salads and soups, or lightly steamed with butter.

  9. Use organic whole grains, legumes and nuts that have been prepared by soaking, sprouting or sour leavening to neutralize phytic acid, enzyme inhibitors and other anti-nutrients.

  10. Include enzyme-rich lacto-fermented vegetables, fruits, beverages and condiments in your diet on a regular basis.

  11. Prepare homemade stocks from the bones of pastured poultry, beef, pork and lamb fed non-GMO feed, and from wild seafood. Use liberally in soups, stews, gravies and sauces.

  12. Use filtered water for cooking and drinking.

  13. Use unrefined salt and a variety of herbs and spices for food interest and appetite stimulation.

  14. Make your own salad dressing using raw vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and a small amount of expeller-expressed flax oil.

  15. Use traditional sweeteners in moderation, such as raw honey, maple syrup, maple sugar, date sugar, dehydrated cane sugar juice (sold as Rapadura) and green stevia powder.

  16. Use only unpasteurized wine or beer in strict moderation with meals.

  17. Cook only in stainless steel, cast iron, glass or good quality enamel.

  18. Use only natural, food-based supplements.

  19. Get plenty of sleep, exercise and natural light.

  20. Think positive thoughts and practice forgiveness.

Using these guidelines as our focus we no longer need to concern ourselves with nutritionism, spending hard-earned money on fad supplements or eating ‘superfoods’ made in a lab, we can focus on eating whole foods that nourish us and our families, naturally.

For more information on traditional foods visit The Weston A. Price Foundation for Wise Traditions website or pick up Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon.

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