It is impossible to deny that something is askew with the typical American diet. After all, coupled with a sedentary lifestyle, the modern American diet has led to a situation where 1 in 3 adults and 1 in 6 kids are obese and the leading health problems in US society are dietary related diseases such as high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease (which itself constitutes the leading cause of death among Americans).
In an effort to help Americans eat healthier, every five years the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) jointly publish a set of dietary guidelines. Last week, the first step toward crafting the 2015 guidelines occurred with the release of an advisory committee report. The new report has been widely welcomed because, in part, it represents an important correction to previous advice that hasn’t been working. But can the new guidelines move us beyond a reductionist approach to food science and toward a more holistic approach to eating?
The problem that often plagues these nutritional guidelines is that the advice is embedded in an approach to food science captured by what author Michael Pollan terms “nutritionism.” Pollan borrows the term from Gyorgy Scrinis, a professor in food and nutrition politics in Australia. Nutritionism refers to the scientific reductionism that takes place in our debates about food. Nutritionism places the focus on individual nutrients—whether macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates, proteins) or micronutrients (vitamins and minerals)—at the expense of looking at whole foods and overall eating patterns.
For example, since the early 1980s we have been conditioned to view fats as bad. The ostracization of this macronutrient (along with the other “bad guy,” salt) left us with flavorless foods that required more sugar to make up for that lost taste. Today, Americans consume on average an extra 22 to 30 teaspoons of added sugar each day. However, current research shows that excess amounts of added sugar in the diet can be toxic and contribute to the very diseases that eliminating fat was supposed to combat. Although the new report’s call to reduce added sugar from our diets is a necessary correction, recommendations ultimately need to move beyond the nutritionism that Scrinis and Pollan describe.
The most effective guidelines will focus not just on what (macro/micronutrients) to eat (or avoid) but emphasize how to approach eating. In his book, In Defense of Food, Pollan summarizes his advice in three simple rules: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” And by “food” he means quality, whole, unprocessed foods. You know, real food, not the stuff that comes pre-packaged in a box or inside a plastic wrapper.
As Scrinis argues, “nutritionism 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.” If you think “healthy” when you choose that enriched but highly processed energy bar over a piece of fruit or handful of nuts, your perception has likely been guided by nutritionism. But, as Pollan argues, “Food consists not just in piles of chemicals; it also comprises a set of social and ecological relationships, reaching back to the land and outward to other people.” When we move beyond simply looking at food in terms of isolated nutrients; we can begin to adopt a healthier approach to eating that supports health and sustains life.
I am not saying that guidelines about specific nutrients are never important. But eating is not rocket science. The more we stick to eating a variety of whole, unprocessed foods, the less we need to worry about whether we are getting enough (or too much) of this or that nutrient. That’s because when we focus on eating whole foods while limiting processed or packaged foods, concerns about added sugars, excess sodium and “good” or “bad” fats quickly become non-issues. The key to a healthy diet is not nearly as complicated as we often make it out to be, but it does require adopting a different approach to food than the one that has prevailed in modern American society.
Whether the new USDA guidelines will achieve “a paradigm shift,” as the advisory committee report calls for, the language of the report seems to move in the right direction. The report speaks of the need for a “culture of health” and places emphasis on “healthy dietary patterns.” To be sure, the debates over specific nutrients will continue—and the guidelines will make those types of recommendations—but there is some indication that the guidelines may be moving away from a single, all-encompassing explanation of dietary related diseases and toward a more holistic view of food. And that should be a positive step for our overall health that includes the body, mind, and environment.
“The U.S. population should be encouraged and guided to consume dietary patterns that are rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in low- and non-fat dairy products and alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and beverages and refined grains.”
—Advisory Committee Report
“Linking health, dietary guidance, and the environment will promote human health and the sustainability of natural resources and ensure current and long-term food security.”
—Advisory Committee Report