Nutritionism: That Seductive Siren

Yesterday I eased us in with some general kvetching about the limits of Paleo and our expectations. Today we’re going to look into the modern phenomenon of nutritionism and its role in all of this.

Did someone order the fillet of protein topped with calcium with a side of fiber-rich starch?

When I went Paleo, I thought I was leaving nutritionism behind. Goodbye to vitamin fortified cereals, wood-chip-enhanced high fiber whole wheat bread, and Omega-3 enhanced boxed stuffs. (Check out this “study” I found from 2003. Logic = Omega 3s are good, let’s add them to pancakes! Also, Michael Pollan predicted that development.) And that would have remained true had I been happy with my weight loss and stayed out of the optimal health arena.

But nooooooooo. I had to go mucking up a perfectly good thing.

As I mentioned yesterday, if you poke around long enough, you realize that ardent followers of Paleo and other real food philosophies like Weston A. Price Foundation’s guidelines are in it for far more than weight loss. Many will argue that there isn’t any weight loss without “healing,” ostensibly in the gut. If you search any Paleo message board, you’ll find folks seeking nutritional advice for everything from warts to chest pain to low libido to depression. And often the suggestions, from both layfolk and pros, involves reference to a supplement, vitamin, nutrient, or the like.

Before we go further, let’s define nutritionism (A good, succinct run-down is here. See also this article by Pollan.). It privileges the component parts of food over the whole food, meaning that instead of eating a seasonally-appropriate, ripe blueberry, we convince ourselves we’re getting antioxidants, fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, and manganese. Examples of the bastard children born from nutritionism are margarine and baby formula. I’m guessing most of you reading this will agree that there aren’t enough vitamins, “whole grains”, and Omega 3s to magically turn Cocoa Puffs into health food. And yet, vast swathes of the world buy into it on a daily basis. Never discount the power of advertising and marketing.

Luckily for me, while I was cogitating this series, J. Stanton of Gnolls.org beat me to the punch and posted on nutritionism. So if you’re looking for a smarter, more sciencey version of my rant, feel free to head over there. The main points I took away are:

  1. We don’t know everything and we need to remember that.
  2. Paleo-friendly foods are not necessarily in the clear.
  3. Not only do we not understand nutrients, but we also don’t fully understand antinutrients either.
  4. Testing these things on ourselves isn’t always the best measure.
  5. Did I mention we don’t know everything about nutrition?

I was reminded of this recently when I took a wild edibles class. One of the instructors was a character out of a Susan Orlean book, I kid you not: cowboy hat, dusty oil-cloth knee-length jacket, Wranglers, big terrain-stomping workboots. He said he was the grandchild of two Native Americans, and that his grandfather taught him everything he knows. He kept trying to complicate the instructions of the other instructor who was clearly trying to keep things simple for us, saying things like “Many plants have several life cycles. Some cycles are edible and some aren’t, and they can be edible one week and not the next.” Certainly gave me pause.

He also shared that, even though things like miner’s lettuce are good for you, when folks used to forage for their salad greens, they wouldn’t eat the same thing for days in a row. They rotated what they found so that no one toxin or nutrient would overwhelm the body or cause problems. They also wouldn’t pick things growing under cedar trees…I think you get the drift. The world we came from was complex and uncertain. He also ominously mentioned that this holds true for the things we purchase in the produce aisle at our friendly neighborhood grocery store. So we can be upset that the apples/corn/potatoes of today have been bred so far away from their origins, but there is a damned good reason for it.

We’ve lost this wisdom and we’ve replaced it with science. Not always a bad thing, but if I’m lost in the woods, I’d go with the advice of someone sharing knowledge many generations strong over someone who deals in statistics and experiments with genetically-altered mice.

To be clear, I’m not anti-science. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool nerd and I love it. It’s obviously useful information for strange creatures with a bad habit of categorizing everything, but it’s limited and we forget this. Science gathers human understanding of things and builds on it, but, and stick with me here, those things don’t care what our understanding of it is. For example, it once struck me as funny that we name animals. Obviously this is useful for us, but that sparrow doesn’t know that it’s called a sparrow or that it belongs in Kingdom Animalia, Phylum Chordata, Class Aves, Order Passiriformes, Superfamily Passeroidea, Family Passeridae.

Where's the "Big Picture" setting on this thing?

And so it is with nutrition and food. We can keep assigning fancy names to all the little bits and try to understand what happens when it goes into our bodies. This is important stuff, no doubt. But I can’t shake the feeling that our ancestors knew more about this stuff intuitively than we may ever know with a microscope.

So, no, we are not free of nutritionism (or, as Stanton points out, antinutritionism) in Paleo. Think you need iodine? Try seaweed! Magnesium? Pumpkin seeds! Omega 3s? Be sure to get your fermented cod liver oil! There’s no doubt that some of this is useful and some of it won’t be. I’m currently experimenting with some magnesium and adrenal fatigue stuff, and I hope there’s payoff. But my expectations are held firmly in check.

For the record, I’m not confident where the boundaries of diet’s influence begin and end. And yet, from my perspective, diet certainly seemed to have something to do with almost everything for a long while. Almost.

Next, Old friends, we hardly know ye

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