Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice

Gyorgy Scrinis
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    Book Description:

    Popularized by Michael Pollan in his best-selling In Defense of Food, Gyorgy Scrinis's concept of nutritionism refers to the reductive understanding of nutrients as the key indicators of healthy food -- an approach that has dominated nutrition science, dietary advice, and food marketing. Scrinis argues this ideology has narrowed and in some cases distorted our appreciation of food quality, such that even highly processed foods may be perceived as healthful depending on their content of "good" or "bad" nutrients. Investigating the butter versus margarine debate, the battle between low-fat, low-carb, and other weight-loss diets, and the food industry's strategic promotion of nutritionally enhanced foods, Scrinis reveals the scientific, social, and economic factors driving our modern fascination with nutrition.

    Scrinis develops an original framework and terminology for analyzing the characteristics and consequences of nutritionism since the late nineteenth century. He begins with the era of quantification, in which the idea of protective nutrients, caloric reductionism, and vitamins' curative effects took shape. He follows with the era of good and bad nutritionism, which set nutricentric dietary guidelines and defined the parameters of unhealthy nutrients; and concludes with our current era of functional nutritionism, in which the focus has shifted to targeted nutrients, superfoods, and optimal diets. Scrinis's research underscores the critical role of nutrition science and dietary advice in shaping our relationship to food and our bodies and in heightening our nutritional anxieties. He ultimately shows how nutritionism has aligned the demands and perceived needs of consumers with the commercial interests of food manufacturers and corporations. Scrinis also offers an alternative paradigm for assessing the healthfulness of foods -- the food quality paradigm -- that privileges food production and processing quality, cultural-traditional knowledge, and sensual-practical experience, and promotes less reductive forms of nutrition research and dietary advice.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52714-9
    Subjects: Health Sciences, Sociology, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. CHAPTER ONE A Clash of Nutritional Ideologies
    (pp. 1-24)

    Margarine has been the chameleon of manufactured food products, able to transform its nutritional appearance, adapt to changing nutritional fads, and charm unwitting nutrition experts and nutrition-conscious consumers.¹ While research published by nutrition scientists in the early 1990s on the harmfulness of the trans-fats in margarine temporarily unveiled its highly processed and degraded character, margarine has subsequently been reinvented as a trans-fat-free, cholesterol-lowering “functional food.”

    The history of margarine reflects some of the broader shifts in nutritional paradigms across three distinct eras of nutrition science and dietary advice over the past century and a half. From its invention by a...

  5. CHAPTER TWO The Nutritionism Paradigm: Reductive Approaches to Nutrients, Food, and the Body
    (pp. 25-50)

    For Robert Silverman of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the question of what we should eat had come down to a choice between proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Silverman was responding to a presentation by Stanford University nutrition scientist Gerard Reaven at a 1986 diabetes conference, at a time when nutrition experts were promoting a low-fat/high-carb diet as a means of addressing diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and obesity.¹ But far from helping diabetics, Reaven argued that a high-carb diet could pose further risks to their health. Silverman’s frustration was that the scientific research into fats, carbohydrates,...

  6. CHAPTER THREE The Era of Quantifying Nutritionism: Protective Nutrients, Caloric Reductionism, and Vitamania
    (pp. 51-72)

    Published in 1918, physician Lulu Hunt Peters’s Diet and Health, with Key to Calories was the first best-selling weight-loss diet book in the United States, going on to sell 800,000 hard-back copies.¹ She was one of the earliest to popularize the practice of counting calories as a weight-loss strategy. But before people could count calories, they had to think about food and their bodies in terms of calories, and Peters had to train her readers to do so.

    Peters’s book listed foods in 100-calorie portions and advised how many calories should be consumed by men or women per day based...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR The Era of Good-and-Bad Nutritionism: Bad Nutrients and Nutricentric Dietary Guidelines
    (pp. 73-98)

    The defining characteristic of the good-and-bad era of nutritionism beginning in the 1960s was scientists’ differentiation of nutrients into “good” and “bad” types. While talk of good and bad foods has a long history, the extension of what French sociologist Claude Fischler calls “binary moral judgments” to the scientific discourse around nutrients was new.¹ Biomarkers also became subject to this binary logic, particularly the distinction between good and bad blood cholesterol.

    The good-and-bad era of nutritionism was dominated by the negative nutritional messages of nutrition experts and dietary guidelines, emphasizing the need to eat less of the bad nutrients and...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE The Macronutrient Diet Wars: From the Low-Fat Campaign to Low-Calorie, Low-Carb, and Low-GI Diets
    (pp. 99-132)

    On February 24, 2000, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) hosted the Great Nutrition Debate, a forum bringing together various popular weight-loss diet-book doctors and nutrition experts to discuss “approaches to dieting, nutrition, and long-term health effects.” Opening the debate, then U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman admitted that “as a society, I’m convinced that we remain very confused and conflicted about what it is that we should eat.”¹ This was a disarming admission from the head of the department that oversees much of the government-sponsored nutrition research and that had been producing and promoting the Dietary Guidelines for Americans...

  9. CHAPTER SIX Margarine, Butter, and the Trans-Fats Fiasco
    (pp. 133-156)

    Which is healthier, butter or margarine? Beginning in the 1960s, many nutrition experts leaned heavily toward margarine. They did so entirely on the basis of their relative ratios of polyunsaturated and saturated fats, while ignoring the presence of highly processed ingredients used to manufacture margarine, including the artificial trans-fats produced by the partial hydrogenation process used to harden vegetable oils. However, a potential crisis for the reputation of margarine emerged in the early 1990s when new scientific studies published by two Dutch nutrition scientists highlighted the harmful effects of these trans-fats. These scientists found that trans-fats had an even more...

  10. CHAPTER SEVEN The Era of Functional Nutritionism: Functional Nutrients, Superfoods, and Optimal Dietary Patterns
    (pp. 157-190)

    The omega-3 fats are one of the wonder nutrients of the present era of functional nutritionism. Many studies over the past decade have reported that an inadequate intake of omega-3 fats is associated with higher incidences of heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and dementia. More positively, many nutrition experts suggest that increasing your omega-3 intake can actively decrease your risk of suffering these diseases, improve your brain function, and enhance your overall health and longevity. This emphasis by nutrition experts on the importance of raising omega-3 intake has created a new anxiety about the perceived scarcity of omega-3 fats in the...

  11. CHAPTER EIGHT Functional Foods: Nutritional Engineering, Nutritional Marketing, and Corporate Nutritionism
    (pp. 191-214)

    Food Technology is an industry journal that showcases the latest technologically modified and nutritionally engineered foods, offering an array of claimed health benefits and marketed with a proliferating range of nutritional buzzwords. Probiotic ice cream, heart-healthy chocolate chip muffins, satiety smoothies, calorie-burning green teas, fiber-rich snack bars, omega-3-fortified baby foods for brain and eye development, and low-glycemic-index meal replacements are part of a new generation of so-called functional food products. Other health-enhancing products include fat-free yogurts with three grams of fiber per cup; heart-healthy chocolate bars with high concentrations of flavonols to reduce blood pressure; a Women’s Wonder Bar chocolate...

  12. CHAPTER NINE The Food Quality Paradigm: Alternative Approaches to Food and the Body
    (pp. 215-236)

    What do we mean when we say something is nutritious? The nutritionism paradigm defines the nutritiousness and healthfulness of foods primarily in terms of their nutrient composition. Low fat, high fiber, calcium, omega-3, nutrient dense, low glycemic index—this is the kind of language that permeates expert and lay dietary discourses around the health effects of foods, since it is the only language that has so far been able to claim scientific authority and legitimacy. But we also understand the nutritiousness and healthfulness of food in other ways. Joan Gussow has pointed to wholesomeness as one such characteristic of nutritious...

  13. CHAPTER TEN After Nutritionism
    (pp. 237-254)

    Nutritionism, as I have emphasized throughout this book, is characterized by the reductive scientific focus on and interpretation of nutrients, rather than simply by the study or reference to nutrients per se. In recent years, and particularly since the publication of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food in 2008, commentators in the popular media, blogs, and scientific journals have more openly discussed and debated the limitations of nutricentric scientific research and dietary advice. Now the refrain of many nutrition and public health experts is that we “eat food, not nutrients” and that dietary guidelines should therefore be food-based rather than...

    (pp. 255-256)
    (pp. 257-264)
  16. NOTES
    (pp. 265-330)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 331-352)