North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

Food vs. Nutrition

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There’s a really interesting essay on food vs. nutrition in the New York Times. It’s long, but probably more relevant to your longevity than American Idol. It’s a nice example of how science is never pure, but a back and forth project that needs to simplify to study, and at times overlooks the fact that it has done so. A must read for Crunchy Cons.

An except taken from about half way through:

Unhappy Meals – Michael Pollan – New York Times:


But if nutritionism leads to a kind of false consciousness in the mind of the eater, the ideology can just as easily mislead the scientist. Most nutritional science involves studying one nutrient at a time, an approach that even nutritionists who do it will tell you is deeply flawed. The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science, points out Marion Nestle, the New York University nutritionist, is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food, the food out of the context of diet and the diet out of the context of lifestyle.

If nutritional scientists know this, why do they do it anyway? Because a nutrient bias is built into the way science is done: scientists need individual variables they can isolate. Yet even the simplest food is a hopelessly complex thing to study, a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in complex and dynamic relation to one another, and all of which together are in the process of changing from one state to another. So if you’re a nutritional scientist, you do the only thing you can do, given the tools at your disposal: break the thing down into its component parts and study those one by one, even if that means ignoring complex interactions and contexts, as well as the fact that the whole may be more than, or just different from, the sum of its parts. This is what we mean by reductionist science.

Scientific reductionism is an undeniably powerful tool, but it can mislead us too, especially when applied to something as complex as, on the one side, a food, and on the other, a human eater. It encourages us to take a mechanistic view of that transaction: put in this nutrient; get out that physiological result. Yet people differ in important ways. Some populations can metabolize sugars better than others; depending on your evolutionary heritage, you may or may not be able to digest the lactose in milk. The specific ecology of your intestines helps determine how efficiently you digest what you eat, so that the same input of 100 calories may yield more or less energy depending on the proportion of Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes living in your gut. There is nothing very machinelike about the human eater, and so to think of food as simply fuel is wrong.

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Written by Curt

January 31, 2007 at 9:29 pm

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