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Michael Pollan's Wisconsin Lecture and Nutritionism

I told you in the last posting about factory farming and sustainability that I would tackle Michael Pollan's lecture in a different post, so here is that post. 

In September 2009, Michael Pollan did a lecture at the University of Wisconsin - Madison about the food industry and farming, in response to UW choosing his book, In Defense of Food, as their university wide reading selection. You can read the transcript of the excerpted lecture here, but I wanted to touch on a few points that he makes within the talk. 

Pollan talks in this part of the lecture a lot about nutritionism - a religion like following having to do with the nutritional elements of our food. The first rule of nutritionism is that the key to understanding any food is the nutrients it contains. The example he uses to demonstrate this is milk. Rather than thinking of milk as just that - milk - we think of it as the delivery mechanism for a certain ratio of nutrients. It has fat, protein, carbohydrates, etc. So basically, we believe that foods are the sum of their nutrients. However, this has been disproved in research studies time and time again - we cannot pinpoint exactly what we need to add to foods to make our bodies react in the same way that they do when we eat pure foods. I believe it was in Pollan's book (maybe In Defense of Food, I'm not sure) that he talked about baby formula. Although studies have broken down all of the nutrients in breast milk that are good for babies, when you add those nutrients to baby formula, the babies still fail to thrive in the same way that breast fed babies do (I am not judging one way or the other the idea of breast feeding, I am simply restating the research that I read). This study implies that there is something about the very nature of breast milk that makes it better for the baby or makes the baby able to absorb the nutrients in ways that are different from simply adding the individualized nutrients to a substitute food.

The second principle of nutritionism is that we are reliant on chemists and nutritionists (and the government) to tell us what we need to be eating. We can't really eat intuitively, because we can't see or really understand this whole interaction between nutrients in our bodies. Thus we rely on those in positions of power to act as a go-between  between our bodies and all this variety of nutrients that we need to be getting. The problem with this is that science and popular opinion changes. First we needed less saturated fat, then we needed less fat, then we needed less carbs, etc. By relying on a constant stream of information from a million difference sources, we are forever confused about what we really should be eating.

The third principle plays on the idea of good versus evil. As Pollan states, Nutritionism is an "ism" but like any other one - a belief system. All belief systems have some sort of ideas of good versus evil in the world, and this one is no different. The only difference is, in this particular "ism" the evil changes rather frequently (see above #2 principle). Pollan says that "at any given point in our dietary history, there is a satanic nutrient we are trying to drive from the food supply." This has vacillated from cholesterol, to trans fats, to saturated fats, but make no mistake that there is always something that is evil that we are trying to get rid of. Likewise, there is always that "golden child" of nutrition - antioxidants, omega 3s, fiber, etc. These nutrients are going to come in, save the day, and suck out all the free radicals in our bodies that give us cancer, thus making us the healthiest people on the planet. 

The final principle of nutrionism is that the whole point of eating is health. By being so tunnel visioned towards the nutrients in our food and finding the proper "balance" between good and evil (which is nearly impossible, as there is so much information that even the most dedicated follower would be overwhelmed), we lose the pleasurable aspect of eating, and the community that can and should be involved in sitting down and sharing a meal together. For centuries, food has provided a gathering situation (think even as far back as Jesus and the Last Supper). Food is not simply a sum of its nutritional particles and a way of surviving, it is something to be enjoyed and treasured. Going along with this idea, there have actually been studies that say that children whose families do not sit down together to eat at least 3 meals a week together are more likely to use tobacco and alcohol, more likely to be struggling in school, and more likely to rate their relationship with their parents as "fair to poor." This could be a correlation situation instead of causation (meaning that these problems are a symptom of whatever else is going on that is making the family not having time to sit down and eat together, instead of the not eating together causing these problems) but regardless there seems to be a strong tie between eating together and having open communication and a happier family life. Notice nowhere in that study did they say that children who sat down with their families ate more nutrients and were healthier (although that probably is also the case), the focus on the study was of the social and developmental aspects of the family life. Food is not simply a way of fueling our bodies, although it certainly is that as well. It provides us with a venue to bond, talk about our days, and really focus on those around us. As Michael Pollan says "there are other reasons to eat besides this obsession with health." When we are able to look beyond the physical definitions of health, we can see that food can provide us with much more than just the sum of its nutrients.

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