Nutritionism: Using a Single Player instead of the Entire Team

July 7, 2010 in Diabetic Menu Item, Health Claims, Mediterranean, Nutrition by Joyce Bunderson

Obviously, to separate out a single player, and pretend that if you have that one player you can score as many points as with the whole team is absurd. But that is the pretense of Nutritionism, which foolishly acts as if it is “scientific” to single out an important nutrient in a food and act as if you will get all the benefit shown in studies conducted using the whole food that contained that nutrient. The whole foods have an entire “team” of nutrients, and they work together in ways scientists have not yet determined.

The term nutritionism, according to Michael Pollan was coined by Gyorgy Scrinis an Australian sociologist. That may be, but certainly Michael Pollan, the enormously popular investigative journalist and author about foods, has been responsible for the popularization of the term. If you’re not familiar with it you can read his definition published in his book. In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto In short, he says that nutritionism is an ideology – a way of organizing ‘large swaths of life and experience under a set of shared but unexamined assumptions.’  Pollan says, “In the case of nutritionism, the widely shared but unexamined assumption is that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient.” In this portion of Pollan’s definition of nutritionism, I agree wholeheartedly.

In my experience, being a dietitian and nutritionist, if I mention banana to 100 people, 90 or more of them will say something about potassium to me. If I say something about an orange, they will return a comment about vitamin C; they never mention broccoli being about as good a choice as the two fruits for those nutrients. It seems from my perspective that most people eat animal meats only for the protein, completely oblivious to all the fat, vitamins and minerals. But the point is, that we should not carelessly shrink down in our minds the meaning of a banana, which also has vitamin C; or an orange, which also has potassium, to one nutrient. And the same is true of meat – it is more than protein, protein, protein.

This background brings us to an important new study recently done in the Netherlands and Germany. It was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in July 2010. This study gave me a giant ‘flash back’ to Pollan’s nutritionism chapter. The study found that naturally occurring plant sterols and stanols are being considered a promising new weapon in the battle against heart disease. The researchers have found that the plant sterols and stanols can produce greater reductions in LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol, than statins (the pharmaceuticals that so many people take). The researchers are very happy because the sterols and stanols don’t seem to have the negative side effects that the statins have when delivered through medications.

The way that sterols and stanols work is that first, they block the absorption of the dietary cholesterol that is circulating in the blood (only trace amounts are absorbed); and secondly, they bind to the circulating cholesterol and it gets eliminated before it can be reabsorbed by the liver.

An interesting little fact about plant sterols and stanols is that they are found in all plant foods. The highest concentrations are in vegetable oils, but they are also in nuts, legumes, grains, fruits, and vegetables. Does that little list sound familiar? Does this sound like the foods that research tells us is linked to many health benefits in addition the heart health – the really delicious whole foods included in the Mediterranean-style of eating? Real foods?

Now I’m sure if you’re one of the millions who are taking the statin medications (big bucks and side effect risks) this looks like great news; and on a certain level it is. But what if you’re one of those millions who were being considered for statins, were not at high risk of heart disease, but were being encouraged to go on statins “just for protection”. Will you be encouraged to switch pills? Probably it’s in the near future.

My questions are these:

  • Why do we need to go straight to getting the sterols and stanols out of oils and making them into supplements?
  • What do we need to do to get out of the ‘supplement mentality’?
  • Is making lots of money in the pharmacy or supplement industry the only way to use nutrition research?
  • Is there any way for the general public to recognize that eating fruit, vegetables, grains and olive oil – the Mediterranean-style of eating is a viable option?
  • How long will it take before people realize that Hippocrates was really on to something when he purportedly said; “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” This concept has been neglected, in my humble opinion. It’s true we cannot forgo all modern medicine has to offer, but the possibility exists that we could reduce our need for medicine, by paying more attention to what we eat.

Yes, I realize that some people have already had a bypass and/or other cardiac events, and are on the statins to reduce their risk of a reoccurrence. I don’t prescribe medicine or ever tell people not to take their prescribed medicine. My advice and questions above are directed at those who are not yet on statins, or sterols and stanols supplements.

When we reduce the way we think about real whole foods - fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts into one of the hundreds if not thousands of nutrients, for example stanols, it makes me realize, nutritionism lives and is well. I hope to live to see the day when this madness stops. Earth’s bounty provides rewards, many are still unknown; but many emerge each and every week. As I have said before, we often don’t know that research results showing a decrease in heart disease, cancer, diabetes and so on are from one nutrient, an interaction among several nutrients or some combination of nutrients. For example, in vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts and whole grains, there is fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants; there are thousands of phytonutrients and most all have been linked to better heart health. Why do we seemingly want to insist on taking one ‘member of the team’ out and expect that if we put it in a pill, it can do the entire team’s job, while we continue to eat cheese puffs, hot dogs and cookies (or whatever the latest popular processed food-like substance favorites are)?

So my appeal is this:  Don’t spend your precious food-team draft choice dollars and opportunities on single players.  It often costs less, has fewer side effects, and can taste really great if prepared well, to choose a team of whole foods, especially whole grains, fruits, nuts and vegetables.  Learn of them, and get your sterols, stanols, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other great individual nutrient players to come into your body with their whole team around them.  Remember, this whole team has been scoring health points for human beings for many thousands of years, and our bodies are very good at extracting these nutrients and combinations of nutrients out and using them to build healthy bodies. Our ancestors have also been at this for thousands of years. Don’t listen to a modern pretender using the pseudo-scientific pretense of nutritionism to sway you into popping pills instead of popping whole grain corn, other whole grains, fruits, nuts, vegetables, and (sparingly) non-processed meat.

Dr. Grandpa said that my Grilled Slaw with Toasted Almonds recipe is the best coleslaw that he has ever tasted. He kept saying, “What makes it taste so great?” I didn’t know for sure, since the grilling itself, and the flavorful ingredients all contributed to a splendid flavor. He said that this recipe was an exceptional winner – I was just trying to make a flavorful slaw without mayonnaise. I enjoy being successful, every so often. J