January 28, 2007

Nutritionism, the ideology that has replaced food.

Michael Pollan writes about how we got so twisted up about nourishing ourselves (as opposed to eating). He pinpoints the start of the problem. In 1977, a Senate Select Committee on Nutrition -- led by George McGovern -- told people to cut down on red meat and dairy products, then, caving to pressure from the red meat and dairy industries, revised the advice to: "Choose meats, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated-fat intake."
A subtle change in emphasis, you might say, but a world of difference just the same. First, the stark message to "eat less" of a particular food has been deep-sixed; don’t look for it ever again in any official U.S. dietary pronouncement. Second, notice how distinctions between entities as different as fish and beef and chicken have collapsed; those three venerable foods, each representing an entirely different taxonomic class, are now lumped together as delivery systems for a single nutrient. Notice too how the new language exonerates the foods themselves; now the culprit is an obscure, invisible, tasteless — and politically unconnected — substance that may or may not lurk in them called "saturated fat."
Pollan adds that the head of the Committee, George McGovern lost his next Senate election:
[T]he beef lobby helped rusticate the three-term senator, sending an unmistakable warning to anyone who would challenge the American diet, and in particular the big chunk of animal protein sitting in the middle of its plate. Henceforth, government dietary guidelines would shun plain talk about whole foods, each of which has its trade association on Capitol Hill, and would instead arrive clothed in scientific euphemism and speaking of nutrients, entities that few Americans really understood but that lack powerful lobbies in Washington. This was precisely the tack taken by the National Academy of Sciences when it issued its landmark report on diet and cancer in 1982. Organized nutrient by nutrient in a way guaranteed to offend no food group, it codified the official new dietary language. Industry and media followed suit, and terms like polyunsaturated, cholesterol, monounsaturated, carbohydrate, fiber, polyphenols, amino acids and carotenes soon colonized much of the cultural space previously occupied by the tangible substance formerly known as food. The Age of Nutritionism had arrived.
Did you know the politics of why we're so fat and sickly? It's McGovern's fault! Everyone started scarfing down Snackwell’s and pasta. Later, reacting to that disaster, everyone freaked out about carbohydrates and went on the Atkins diet.
By framing dietary advice in terms of good and bad nutrients, and by burying the recommendation that we should eat less of any particular food, it was easy for the take-home message of the 1977 and 1982 dietary guidelines to be simplified as follows: Eat more low-fat foods. And that is what we did. We’re always happy to receive a dispensation to eat more of something (with the possible exception of oat bran), and one of the things nutritionism reliably gives us is some such dispensation: low-fat cookies then, low-carb beer now.
In the end, the advice is to eat real food and to eat less. Actually, he's got 9 points of advice at the end -- well worth reading -- but it's mainly eat real food and eat less.


Interesting idea: "the Okinawans practiced a principle they called 'Hara Hachi Bu': eat until you are 80 percent full." Funny! I don't think Americans could even grasp the concept of identifying the 80 percent point. It's hard enough for us to notice the point at which we are full. We don't even know how to be put off by the gross portions that are set down in front of us in restaurants.

When I go to steakhouses here in Madison, I always order the smallest size -- "petite" -- and it's 6 ounces. I never want to eat the whole thing, and then I feel silly bringing home a 3 ounce portion. But, you know, 3 ounces is considered -- by some official standard -- to be one portion of meat. So I go to a restaurant, order the dinky size, and it's a double portion. It's very hard to develop common sense about how much to eat under such conditions. If you pay $30 for a steak, you don't want to leave $15 worth of it! You push yourself to eat even though you aren't hungry, and it becomes second nature.


Meade said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Meade said...

Here's a fun quiz (on which I did poorly.)

vnjagvet said...

We're back to the advice of almost a hundred years ago:

Eat a balanced diet. Don't eat too much.

Nearly 40 years ago, I was put on a low cholesterol diet because of extremely high cholesterol and lipids (fats) in my blood tests.

Recent sophisticated blood tests have determined this was caused entirely by genetics, and not affected by diet at all. IOW, my body made the stuff no matter what I ate.

Statins, and common vitamins like niacin and folic acid have it entirely under control.

I can now enjoy my steak occasionally with no ill effects on my cholesterol or lipid count.

Unfortunately, I nearly lost my appetite reading all the doom and gloom stuff about nutrition from the food nazis.

Unknown said...

Food is cheap. Keeping the cost of food low is not a critical success factor for restaurants. Things like rent and payroll are.

The easiest way for a restaurant to attract more patrons without harming profitability is by increasing portion sizes. So the choice becomes either don't eat at restaurants or, as Ann suggests, don't eat what they give you.

sean said...

I've always tried to operate according to the principle that if you don't get out of bed still tired, you slept too long, and if you don't get up from the table still hungry, you ate too much. To which my brother riposted, "And if you don't finish having sex still . . . ." to which I didn't have a good answer.

AllenS said...

I eat as much as I can hold. I also lift weights and do situps multiple times daily. I keep busy during the day, and when inside the house will take 2 1/2 lbs weights in each hand and shadowbox with them. If the weather isn't too cold, I'll grab my double barrelled shotgun and go for a long walk. I'm 5'9" and 185 lbs. Not too bad for 60 years old. I also like beer. I don't think that it's the caloric intake so much, but the fact that very few people do hard physical work any more.

Simon said...

I think Allen hit the nail on the head. This is one area in which I reject supply-side theories. ;) As a general rule, I tend to think that health and weight are far more directly tied to how much exercise you do than how carefully you balance your diet; this isn't to say that you can live on pizza as long as you run twenty miles a day, the principle has limits, but within reason, diets seem to be a cheat, a way to feel good about yourself for something you're not doing instead of something that you are doing.

(Of course, this may be wholly self-serving - my usual order at a steakhouse is a 12oz with a rice pilaf and a baked potato. Protein and carbs!)

Paco Wové said...

Several nitpicks concerning the article:

Since the widespread adoption of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers in the 1950s, the nutritional quality of produce in America has, according to U.S.D.A. figures, declined significantly.

I wish he'd given a citation for that, because I have trouble believing it. Also:

at the farmer’s market ... you will find ... fresh whole foods picked at the peak of nutritional quality.

No, I will find foods picked when they are more or less ripe, and not too buggy. Any other description is propaganda. Also - my local farmers' market is under several inches of snow right now; fresh foods are not available, unless I get them from far away, like California or Chile.

So you might want to think about putting down this article now and picking up a spatula or hoe.

...and clear away the several inches of snow to dig the frozen ground.

On the whole, a good article. But the first line is still the best part.

Anonymous said...

There is no escaping the desperately detrimental impact Prof. Althouse's decision no longer to vet the comments is having.

Where is there now the fantasy that every posted word has been filtered by and through the woman providing, thereby, an occasion for the dear lady to murmur to self:

"Hmmm...interesting. I must have intellectual or possibly even carnal congress with this fellow at some point."

I totally don't blame her for feeling that there is more to life than reading every comment on this or any 'blog' [dread word].

'Tis though terrible sad.

vbspurs said...

You push yourself to eat even though you aren't hungry, and it becomes second nature.

That happens, in with the 4.95 Happy Meal.

Once, in a British forum, we were talking of American eating habits. Someone mentioned the ENORMOUS portions, by any foreign standards, of American restaurants.

Since Americans have been called 'fatties' by Brits (increasingly so, ironically, after seeing overweight black folk during the Katrina aftermath...), some people wanted to know why it was, that Americans are so fat -- and why they would tolerate restaurants feeding them SO MUCH. I said,

"I think restaurants don't aim for customer's with larger appetites, thus the need for large portions.

I think restaurants ENCOURAGE the MAKING of larger appetites. Larger appetites means larger stomachs, more repeat customers, more money. Obviously.

Also, and this is just my idea, I think the Great Depression really made an impression on a certain generation of people here.

Before that awful event, Americans were known as rather frugal people
(the "Frugal Yank" found in so many novels of the 1800s, who worked,
saved, and did without, all of them, all the time. Try finding one of
those today).

It's that generation of grannies and gramps that you see pigging out
at Morrisons Cafeterias, as they putter around in their wheelchairs
because they're so obese they can't waddle around anymore.

Never mind, they are probably thinking, I'll never be hungry like I was in the 30's again. And of course, that heightened sense of deprivation was transmitted to theirchildren, the Boomers. Etc. etc."


Meade said...

Simon said...
...within reason, diets seem to be a cheat, a way to feel good about yourself for something you're not doing instead of something that you are doing.

I think the problem is in the way "diet" is commonly conceived. Many of us tend to think of diet in terms of prohibition. If instead we think of diet in terms of allowance and permission to eat, in moderation, health-promoting foods and to take, in moderation, fitness-promoting exercise, the concept of "diet" becomes "supply-side" in a positive way.

Here you go, Simon, just for you -- I call it "The Smart Conservative's Supply-side Diet®": Liberally pursue daily exercise and liberally consume nutrient-dense plant-based foods. Then, freely enjoy (in moderation) your favorite couch pilaf/ potato activities, animal fats, proteins, and carbs. Avoid, to whatever degree possible, government health directives, taxes without representation, and all forms of nannyism. Expect the following results: health, happiness, prosperity. (And envious so-called Liberals.)

Simon said...

Meade - it'll make millions. We'll put Mike Huckabee on the posters. ;)

Anonymous said...

$30.00 for steak? Must be London broil.

Maybe beef is cheaper in the Midwest. It would be very hard to find Porterhouse, or New York for under $50.00 on the Coast---unless it's an early-bird special or some such.

Actualy on New Year's Eve, at the restaurant I went to they had Filet Mignon on special for $38.00, but you got no sides, no salad, no nothin'. --I didn't think it was that good of a value given the way Filet Mignon shrinks up and is really tiny on the plate.

It's hard to "super-size" Filet Mignon.

Wait a sec....I'm supposed to be a vegetarian and not know about these things.


Peace, Maxine

vnjagvet said...

There is another theory out there called the setpoint theory. A succinct explanation can be found at this link:


Allen S is right. Exercise is the key. And it doesn't have to be no pain, no gain. 30 minutes of walking a day does wonders for the metabolism. Make sure you walk fast enough that your heart rate rises, but not too fast so you are out of breath.

Wow. Is it that easy? Yes it is.

After 40 years of experimentation, necessitated by adult onset diabetes and chronic coronary artery disease, that is the only thing that has worked for me.

Anonymous said...

3-2-4-4 :

3 servings from the Milk group.

2 servings from the meat group.

4 servings from the bread and cerial group, and...

4 servings from the fruits and vegetables.


Hey said...

Maxine: All food in North America is cheap beyond belief. It is doubly so when you are in a place with low real estate prices, which even Westchester and the nicer parts of Connecticut are compared to Manhattan. The lack of economies of scale in Manhattan's retail industry doesn't help either.

A $30 steak is fairly standard in central city steakhouses outside of Manhattan (it will be the small filet, but still). A real steakhouse also only sells naked meat, sides are extra to encourage sharing and pad the bill ($30-$45 for a main sounds reasonable, until you remember that sides are $15, salad is $15-20, and the wine list has few bottles less than $80).

Ann: Serving sizes are ridiculous as they are an attempt to express food ratios in whole numbers. The suggested serving sizes are thus tiny, with a large number of servings per day to accommodate the ratio of fruit&veg to meat and fat.

A 6 ounce steak is not an everyday meal, but it is geared to a decent diet for the average man. A small to medium sized woman would likely find it large, but why would we think that a meal could satisfy both a 110lb woman and a 185lb man? Given the way decisions are made on restaurant visits and what the core customer base is, especially for steakhouses and steak course in other restaurants, why would one expect them to cater to the light female eater?

What far too many people ignore or forget is that restaurants are not designed around the every day customer. They are designed to cater to a weekly-monthly customer, if not a special occasion customer. Entertain a client, celebrate a milestone, take a break from rotuine. While many of us are regular, if not constant, restaurant patrons (especially those of us who live and work in a downtown), we're not the key marginal customer.

Further, the idea that every meal at every restaurant needs to be something one could have every day is the same inanity and fascism that leads to transfat bans, fat taxes, and the ever present extension of the nanny state. You need to take control of your own diet. Eat and order according to your own circumstances, rather than expecting someone else to take care of it for you. After the age of 12, and especially after the age of 18, this is somethign that no one else can do for you, no matter how well intentioned they are.

bearbee said...

Paco Wové said...

Since the widespread adoption of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers in the 1950s, the nutritional quality of produce in America has, according to U.S.D.A. figures, declined significantly.

I wish he'd given a citation for that, because I have trouble believing it.

I heard this several years ago. I could not locate the USDA publication but here is a link to the Journal of the American College of Nutrition evaluating the findings.

Results: As a group, the 43 foods show apparent, statistically reliable declines (R < 1) for 6 nutrients (protein, Ca, P, Fe, riboflavin and ascorbic acid), but no statistically reliable changes for 7 other nutrients.

Dave Schuler said...

So the choice becomes either don't eat at restaurants or, as Ann suggests, don't eat what they give you.

To not eat food that has been served is wasteful and to eat it may be waist-full (sorry.) If restaurants don't offer 'half' size portions, perhaps requesting a lesser than normal portion might be an agreeable option.

bearbee said...

Here is another article on the USDA study:

Vegetables Without Vitamins

buddy larsen said...

Re the posts above about nutrients then & now, if you like I go to sleep with TCM (no ads) on the tube, you will see a lot of 30s & 40s movies, and won't help but be struck by how healthy the people looked and acted.

Kev said...

So the choice becomes either don't eat at restaurants or, as Ann suggests, don't eat what they give you.

But my no means should you throw it away! That's what to-go boxes are for (be it the Styrofoam used by the more casual dining restaurants, or the fancy packaging--complete with re-heating instructions--favored by more upscale places).

Some places serve such huge portions that it's almost a given that everyone will be taking something home. I always get a kick out of the server who (while boxing up everything) asks if anyone has room for dessert.

But at least I'm not hearing about parents forcing their kids to "join the Clean Plate Club" because "children are starving in Korea" anymore. I once read that such behavior contributed to weight issues for a lot of us who were kids at that time.

Paco Wové said...

Thanks for the references, Bearbee.
The first does bear out some of what Pollan is saying. However, the conclusions of the paper are largely at variance with Pollan's:

"To the extent that our genetics-based hypothesis may contribute toward the apparent general declines found by us and Mayer, those declines are unlikely to be reversed by environmental approaches such as organic growing methods, as suggested by some.

Rather than implicating synthetic fertilizers, the authors posit that grower selection for characteristics such as yield, size, and insect-resistance has been responsible for reducing nutrient content. The only way around that problem is to pick and grow cultivars that are relatively high in nutrients, but that may have the effect of reducing yields.

Anonymous said...


How can I take seriously any part of a quiz which claims that the average bottle of soda twenty years ago was 6.5 ounces? Complete, utter nonsense. Or should I say, Wrong!

Ann Althouse said...

The standard Coke bottle really was 6.5 oz. I don't know if that was 20 years ago, but it certainly was in the 50s and 60s. And a coffee cup was 6 oz. ... or maybe 4. I forget!

The glasses you used for milk and water back then were 8 oz., but people also had "juice glasses." I think they were 4 oz. Maybe 3. If you were having orange juice, you'd just have a little juice glass full. It was the equivalent of one squeezed orange. Now, people have 12 oz., essentially, 4 oranges worth.

Anonymous said...

Bring back the vomitorium. We're an empire, baby. Let's act like it.

Susan said...

The other related thing I noticed about the Katrina victims was how many had diabetes. Every time someone was interviewed they seem to say "What am I going to do, I/my mother/father/sister/brother/etc has diabetes and we don't have any medicine!"

vbspurs said...

Brits are greatly aided by their miserable cuisine. Who would want to eat an oversized portion?

What! I'll see your chiliburger and fries and raise you our Shepherd's Pie!

Seriously, though, Cedarford, I agree with most of what you wrote -- except I have sympathy for Katrina victims, even the ones who seem to "ask for it" with their lazy attitudes to helping themselves first. Still, people in near extremis should always have sympathy, IMHO. It's the least we could do.

Back to the weight/food thingie.

See, I find that Americans fail to understand just how judgemental we British are about weight.

When I was growing up, society impressed on me that there was something almost suspect about fat people.

It hinted to a lack of finesse, to a lack of self-respect, but even more than that, a self-indulgence that is at odds with the British character.

(Me writing this, and other Brits reading this, is very embarrassing to us both. It's like revealing something which is unspoken, and for good reason. So, sorry about that)

But Americans? Hedonism, exhibitionism, and blue-collar attitudes of "Hungry Man" appetites are what drives them, not a sense of shame about self-indulgence.

And of course, there is something else at work -- your food is cheap. VERY CHEAP.

I know a French lady who says her daughter can only afford to eat meat once a month.

It doesn't take a brain to realise you're fat, because you have wheat fields the size of Romania, and you're not taxed to death, like we are.


vbspurs said...

"What am I going to do, I/my mother/father/sister/brother/etc has diabetes and we don't have any medicine!"

Isn't that because black Americans have an unusually high starch/sugar diet? They fry a lot, too.

The same is true of many Africans in Africa -- some of the most morbidly obese people in the world are located in South Africa (as well as Hawaii, and Tonga).

I wonder how many people would wonder about fat people, if a catastrophe like Katrina, had happened in Soweto?


Anonymous said...

In Michigan we follow an ancient maxim - "Eat till it hurts"

Anonymous said...

Professor Althouse, since you haven't called Cedarford on his bullshit, I take it you agree with his racist post?

KCFleming said...

The problem with the Nutritionists is that they are a near note for note copy of the post-victorian era health fad, a similar phenomenon creating a near-religion of Health.

Suffice it to say that the next movement in this minor opus is "Blame The Sick", wherein it is recognized that depsite rigorous attention to Exercising And Eating Right, we still get old and ill, and even die. It must be someone's fault of course, so the moral censure of illness will once again come around.

Read William Osler and The Fixed Period for an example of what to expect here.

First we blame the farmers and cooks, then the doctors and government, then the fatties themselves. The difference in our era is the big club wielded by the state. Expect it to swing away, and even flail wildly.

[Minus 2 points for mixing metaphors]

Simon said...

reality check said...
"Professor Althouse, since you haven't called Cedarford on his bullshit, I take it you agree with his racist post?"

I've written a lot of posts that I'm almost certain Ann would consider bullshit, and she hasn't called me out on them. ;) Just letting a comment stand doesn't imply approval. It may well reflect a "give them enough rope..." view, which is perhaps why so many of your comments - some of which are quite deliberately insulting towards and about Ann - haven't been deleted or "called."

I don't agree with Cedarford, but I don't see the point in rebutting (or reading, for that matter) what s/he has to say anymore.

AllenS said...

Cedarford merely quoted something that Victoria had said. Nowhere in Cedarford's comment is race mentioned. Take two reality pills, and call us in the morning.

bearbee said...

Brits are greatly aided by their miserable cuisine. Who would want to eat an oversized portion?

See, I find that Americans fail to understand just how judgemental we British are about weight.

Hey, HEY, wait a minute.....am I missing something here?! Articles are being published about obesity and the balloooooning Brits. The rates and percentages give no bragging rights to them.

Adult obesity rates have almost quadrupled in the last 25 years. Now 22% of Britons are obese and three-quarters are overweight

The number of obese children has tripled in 20 years. 10% of six year olds are obese, rising to 17% of 15 year olds

Fat Britain Obesity rates in Britain are soaring with nearly a quarter of adults now classed as clinically obese.

Too Many UK Women Are Overweight At Start Of Pregnancy

According to the WHO the number of fat Europeans is increasing.

So lets not get so nose-in-the-air hoity toity.

Ann Althouse said...

Reality Check: "Professor Althouse, since you haven't called Cedarford on his bullshit, I take it you agree with his racist post?"

No, I'm just calling you on that bullshit. A comments thread is not a march, and it's obvious that I don't endorse what people are saying. If a comment is here, all it means is that it hasn't crossed the line into what I think requires deletion. I'm sure if I deleted things I disagreed with, you'd criticize me for doing that.

Ann Althouse said...

Pogo, that article looks interesting, but access is restricted.

MadisonMan said...

The standard Coke bottle really was 6.5 oz. I don't know if that was 20 years ago, but it certainly was in the 50s and 60s.

Pepsi Cola hits the spot
Twelve full ounces, that's a lot
Twice as much for a nickle too
Pepsi-cola is the drink for you!

It's all marketing. Sell more for the same price, and you get market share.

KCFleming said...

pdf via e-mail

Anonymous said...

I'd say "Vive Saddam" means exactly what it seems to mean. We support the enemy of the United States, even when it is a vicious, fascist dictator. As I say in the vlog, I don't assume everyone in the march endorses that sign, but I certainly do think that anyone around that guy had the responsibility to call him on his bullshit and to refuse to let him march with that. They did not, so the sign represents more than the individual man who carried it, albeit not everyone in the parade. It is a despicable sign, and Reality Check's attempt at problematizing it is pathetic... at the very least.

Dunno, seems very similar to me.

I've read before that blogs are more like a living room conversation. If so, it is your conversation, you are the hostess, and racist remarks should not be allowed to go without you calling him out and making clear that you find them unacceptable.

That certainly wouldn't occur in my living room.

No one is asking you to delete the comments, although we know that you do like to delete comments. But in a sense, since you do like to delete some but not others, that makes it even more clear that you find Cedarford's discourse reasonable.

I fail to see why you believe that people in a march that were standing next to Vive Saddam should get into any altercation with him, or why you believe the organizers should ask him to refrain, and yet you somehow find yourself allowed to censor some portions of your commenters and not others.

Actually, I think if you looked up the the literature of "common carrier" and commenting on a website it is clear that many people feel exactly that if you censor some comments and not others than that means you are liable for the content of the comments you do not censor. (I don't think that's been definitively decided yet wrt blogs and the comments.)

Ann Althouse said...

If you want to criticize something someone said, then you do it. Don't tell me to do it. I don't even know what comment you're upset about. I don't read everything here.

Ann Althouse said...

It's like you're tattling to Mommy. Deal with it yourself.

KCFleming said...

reality check, you're a tired little scold.

I saw Bradbury's play Fahrenheit 451 yesterday. He held little respect for folks such as you.

"There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian, Irish / Italian / Octogenarian / Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women's Lib/Republican, Mattachine/FourSquareGospel feel it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.

Fire-Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books were burned first by the minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from the book, then that, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the library closed forever."

Reality check, you're one of Bradbury's firemen.

vbspurs said...

Hey, HEY, wait a minute.....am I missing something here?! Articles are being published about obesity and the balloooooning Brits. The rates and percentages give no bragging rights to them.

One goshdarned sec, Bearbee! ;)

I love talking about different cultures, but my comments are rarely in the dullwitted 'compare your culture to mine' (and mine wins out) vein. God, I hate that. It reminds me of the Borat boards, on IMDB.

No, I merely meant that no matter what stats people can point out, there is a cultural sensibility in Britain to do with fatness as character indictment. That's all.

(But explaining overweight Scots is beyond even my poor skills of elucidation)

BTW, since I got my new DELL computer this past August, I gained at least a stone in weight. I'm disgusted with myself, even though nobody says they notice.


Simon said...

Victoria -
"since I got my new DELL computer this past August"

I'm reluctantly submitting to the inevitable and buying a little Mac laptop (a G4 powerbook, in fact) -- Windows Vista is so unremittingly ghastly (and so inevitably imminently dominant) that I'm reluctantly conceding that we're never going to go back to the kind of OS that I'd prefer, and taking a look at the alternatives.

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