Why does ‘nutrition’ keep changing?

Originally posted on Nourishing Revolution as ‘The problem with ‘nutrition’

One minute coffee is good for you, the next it’s bad, blueberries will save you from cancer, no, they won’t, red wine will.  Chocolate is a health food, sugar is the devil. After studying food and nutrition formally and informally for the past decade, I could tell you a thing or two, but the things I can tell you won’t make any sense unless I clarify something first: there is a problem with the way we have been taught to think about nutrition.  Actually, there are a few inter-related problems. I will do my best to explain them.


The body complex

Now, here’s the main thing: the body is incredibly complex, probably more complex than we even realise. We seem to simultaneously know too much and not very much at all: it’s very confusing. Nutritional research usually works in one of two ways: 1) controllable experiments on rats, 2) much much more variable studies of human beings. The main problem with this is that the much more scientific studies of rats are hard to extrapolate to humans, because we are not rats, and more importantly, because we do not live in controlled environments. The research on actual human beings can hardly tell us anything because there are so many factors that unless something is really obviously good or bad for us the difference is not statistically significant. The other problem with the latter is that correlation is probably a much more major factor than we’d like to think, eg: people who drink a glass of red-wine a day are probably eating more ‘healthy’ bourgeois food like vegetables than people who are drinking five beers a day.

Media sucks

The media particularly suck at reporting science, especially relation to nutrition, for example: this neuro-psych experiment looking at people’s behavior after consuming a serotonin-decreasing drink resulted in media reports that cheese and chocolate help people make better decisions.  Obviously this is not science, by any stretch, but it makes a good story because people like the idea that cheese and chocolate are good for you.



People’s bodies are different

Yes, we are all biologically and genetically very similar, but we are also very different. Partly this is to do with lifestyle, and the way our different digestive systems have experienced life so far, partly it’s to do with the way our immune systems, as well as endocrine and other bodily systems interact with our digestive system and the food coming into our bodies.  It’s well known that not everyone can digest or tolerate gluten or dairy or peanuts or a plethora of other things.  Suffice to say, nutritional advice is often given out as if it is relevant to everyone, all the time.  This makes absolutely no sense.



Nutrition has become a moral issue

There is a naughty and nice list when it comes to nutrition.  Fat tends to be considered immoral and sinful along with almost anything else that is indulgent and delicious.  Apparently ‘callories’ are bad (so getting energy from food = bad?). It used to be common knowledge that cholesterol was evil, but actually it’s a very important substance in human health, wait a minute: there are good and bad types of cholesterol (actually LDL and HDL are lipoproteins, not cholesterol as such – public health advice tends to treat people as if they are stupid).  This puritan religious discourse continues: healthy food is hard work and morally good. This is echoed in advertising and is absolutely ludicrous.  Perhaps we will reach a kind of healthy-heaven if we use trim dressing. Perhaps we will burn in hell with all the other lovers of saturated fat and the chocolate biscuits that give you devil’s horns.  I very much doubt it, but the moral value of nutrition is something that most people take for granted.  People who over-eat or are obese are considered to have no self-control and are blatantly discriminated against. People who are skinny must be morally superior, especially women, after all, there is only one ideal image of feminine beauty that we should all revere, and Barbie doesn’t eat at all.



Nutritional value means different things

I was quite confused when a friend of mine once remarked that mushrooms have no “nutritional value”.  It turns out that they aren’t particularly high in calories (not morally bad?), they aren’t a great source of macro-nutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrates), but they are nutritionally very complex and are a source of lots of things like potassium and vitamin B6, so how, exactly, don’t they have nutritional value? Sometimes nutritional value is just talking about calories, other times it’s talking about other things we know about that might be “good for you”.




Nutritionism, as described by Scrinis, is the focus on the constituents of food, on vitamins, fiber, minerals, amino acids, types of fat, anti-oxidant and so on, rather than focusing on whole foods.  This reductionism is great for selling vitamin supplements and for advertising products but it’s not actually very helpful for people who are trying to decide what to eat or to understand healthy food.  One obvious problem with this goes back to the body/health/food being so very complex.  Identifying vitamin C and Omega three may be helpful in situations where there is a problem with deficiency, but supplementing is inferior, in practice, to consuming whole foods.  Supplements are often dubious in quality and sometimes taking a substance in isolation is actually more harmful than taking it in a complex form.  Vitamin C, for example, is commonly known as ascorbic acid, but that is only the name of the most active component of a whole lot of things that are naturally found together. It didn’t surprise me when the research came out a few years ago that Vitamin C didn’t help treat the common cold, the experiments on mice were using only ascorbic acid.  Whole foods contain a whole lot of complex things that we are just beginning to understand. We know of hundreds of important compounds like vitamins and minerals, but there is a lot we don’t know.   Remember:  Nutritionism is only one fragmented western perspective on food/health. It does not integrate well with other views.



Things keep changing

Not only do the chances of coffee saving you from Alzheimer’s or giving you cancer seem to change from week to week, every five minutes there’s a new super-food from the amazon that will probably cure all your problems, and make you a more morally superior person.  Aside from the constant instability in the nutritional landscape, our food has actually changed.  Wild fruits, before we selectively bred them for hundreds of years, were lower in sugars and higher in protein and micro-nutrients.  We have never-before had access to so much energy in the form of processed grains and processed oils. Chances are, our bodies, which are still very similar to how they were 10,000 years ago, don’t really know how to deal with this stuff.


Good nutrition is a privilege

Ironically, the cheapest foods now, are the more processed. A century ago only the wealthy could regularly afford white bread, now it’s mostly the domain of the poor.  Bread has become somethings almost mythical: soft and light, like a cloud, and totally unlike any other food ever known in human history.  While the middle and upper-classes can afford to buy whole-grain sourdough with only four ingredients or, better yet, go gluten free, there are plenty of people who make do with processed sausages and the budget-brand loaf.  While some can afford to drink their glass of red wine and eat a variety of vegetables, other people learn that vegetables spoil quickly and that red-wine is best consumed by the cask in order to forget how terrible life can be.  Moral judgement when it comes to nutrition is a privilege.  ‘Healthy food’ is a privilege, and in a ‘developed’ country we have the vague idea that there are thousands or millions of people in the world worse-off than us, and there are.  While there are many people in the world who would be grateful for any calories at all, the wealthy are watching their waste-lines and trying not to cave-in to temptation because the over-processing of food has left a legacy of over-fed and under-nourished people.


Why the market won’t save us

There are lots of things that are said so often that people take them for granted: if you work hard, you’ll succeed, people are lazy and selfish, and so on.  We are usually so absorbed in our own culture that we don’t really see it, and therefore, can’t challenge the things that aren’t healthy/functional/true/ideal. After all, our culture is the water in which we swim.  There are some serious problems with out dominant social discourses.  Neoliberal ideas surrounding work and ‘the market’ tend to come under this bracket, so while I’m in a deconstructive mood I’m going to rant about a few of the false premises that people seem to take for granted:

1. People are essentially selfish and lazy 

This is only a lie because it’s a partial truth: people are sometimes lazy and selfish, but that is not our essential nature (if we have one at all). People are communal animals. We are hard-wired for community. We get satisfaction from work that is meaningful and helpful, we get good vibes from doing nice things and helping other people. Assuming that we are all just selfish and lazy is actually kind of yuck. It’s an excuse to devalue some people’s lives because they haven’t achieved as much as other people.

2. We all have equal opportunities to succeed

Now, even to an amateur goldfish, this would sound ridiculous. No one really believes this, do they? There is absolutely no evidence for this assumption. Perhaps it is part of the fairy-tale of the uber-privileged who have no vision outside of their limitless choices. Okay, so maybe we don’t have equal opportunity to succeed, but surely even socially disadvantaged people have options, right? They have choices, right? Let’s just pretend that this is good enough.

3. Poor people are just making bad choices

This has been bugging me since I read Linda Tirado’s essay: Why I make terrible decisions. We all know the price of rent, food and power has gone up heaps and the minimum wage and benefits haven’t followed suit, yet some people insist that people accessing food banks are just not budgeting properly, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg – you see that poor-looking person over there smoking cigarettes/gambling/drinking and you think it’s as simple as ‘bad choices’? Fuck man, you have no idea what it feels like to have massive social pressure and so few choices, that easing the pain just a little bit, and sacrificing other important things, seems like the best choice you have. I’m not even going to go into the implications of inter-generational trauma, but I will mention that my supervisor who did her PhD looking at food scarcity found that some of the people she talked to smoked cigarettes because they suppress hunger and a packet lasts longer than a meal.

4. Hard work can work for everyone

Even if you don’t really believe in premise 2, you might have a bit of faith that with a lot of hard work and a dash of determination success is possible for anyone. The ‘hard’ work discourse really grates because it assumes that the people who are at the top worked the hardest. News flash: the people who clean your toilets work fucking hard for relatively little reward. This also assumes there are enough jobs for everyone and that everyone has the ability to work.

5. There is this trickle-down effect…

So, the idea here is that people who make it to the top will invest in more business ventures and create more jobs, that this is all good for the economy, and that wealth trickles down. Now, anyone with a bit of critical awareness will tell you that the trickle-down effect is nothing more than the rich pissing on the poor, that for those people to get to the top they have to make tough choices – like paying people as little as possible and employing as few people as possible. That’s just good business sense, right?

6. What is good for the economy is good for us

People seem to have this idea that the economy is very important and must grow at all costs, without really knowing what ‘the economy’ is and who it is serving. We all need to think a bit more critically about what ‘the economy’ actually is, every time these words crop up in conversation. The way we measure ‘the economy’ is actually just a number based on all the transactions (GDP) and lots of transactions might just mean lots of crises – earthquakes are great for the economy, times of peace are not. While the economy is booming we still have poverty, crime and deprivation, in fact, we seem to be getting even more of the above as the gap between rich and poor widens. What is good for ‘the economy’ is not necessarily good for us.

7. The market is holy

‘The market’ is a similar concept, used in the religious discourse of neoliberal devotees: the market will save us. Just let it be free. There is absolutely no evidence to support this religious belief.  The main problem with this is that it leaves corporations free to exploit whomever they can, in whatever way they like. Corporations function much like cancer in the body – their job is to grow and grow and amass more and more resources. That is all. If you take all the power away from governments to regulate this kind of unhealthy social growth, you give all the power to the the tumors.

8. Paid work is morally good

This is based on the premise that people are inherently selfish and lazy. It’s much like the other puritan discourse in our social religion: we are all born sinners (selfish and lazy) and therefore to be morally good we must perform paid work – as much as possible – then we are able to feel self-righteous and superior to those who don’t work. If we are really really good we will even do unpaid work for charities or something, and if you work very hard for a long time you deserve your pension (not a Neoliberal idea) but any other dependence on the system is morally wrong and should be punished with verbal abuse and judgement, never mind that people who seek welfare are vulnerable and socially disadvantaged, never mind that they are human beings, never mind that the way they are treated by society and dysfunctional welfare systems is dehumanising and not really helping, never mind that poverty and social inequality is bad for everyone and that more equal societies are better off.

9. Taxing the rich is mean

Now, someone keeps telling me that extra taxes on high incomes are punitive, that is: punishing the rich. I fail to see how wealth distribution is a kind of punishment when more equality is better for everyone and quite frankly, I’m not overly sympathetic if Banker-Brad can’t afford a second yacht when there are far too many hungry children in this world. Now I’m not meaning to be mean and judgmental of wealthy people, there are lots of unhelpful stereotypes of rich people as well, I’m sorry about that, but it’s not top priority for me.

Negative stereotype of rich person


10. Taxing the rich is bad for productivity The argument goes like this: Banker-Brad works hard for his money (unlike those lazy toilet cleaners).  If Brad doesn’t get rewarded with extra money, or (heaven forbid) he gets extra money but it’s taxed at a higher rate (to subsidise the lavish lifestyles/healthcare/education/welfare of the undeserving poor) then Brad will start to lose motivation for his high-flying job, he won’t want to work as hard, and neither will all this other high-income-bracket friends. The economy will collapse and everyone will suffer. Bullshit. Research into human motivation shows that money motivation only has limited effects – for example, when people are given a task that requires creativity/challenge or ‘thinking outside the box’, money doesn’t help them achieve the task, but in a similar experiment where the creativity is taken out of the equation more money does work as a motivator. This suggests that people with more challenging/creative roles like Brad would actually benefit less from monetary motivation than the people cleaning his toilets.

For more information, watch this TED talk:

There are lots of other things that could be included here, but I hope this begins to point out how ridiculous some of the ideas we have around work and poverty are. Sometimes the ideas we take for granted are analogous to the shit floating around our social fish tank. We can either see it as part of the water or we can see it for what it really is: an unhealthy part of an unsustainable eco-system.