In a nutshell, “nutritionism” is the process of studying food by reducing it to the nutrients it contains. This concept comes from Michael Pollan, who wrote the popular books “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food”… both are highly recommended. Pollan makes the case that in order to really understand what makes up a healthy diet, we need to study the food as a whole, not the individual nutrients in it. Studying the nutrients in food, like we do so often in nutrition, allows us to understand the importance of vitamins and minerals in the body; then we can isolate them and put them in a supplement. The problem is, though, that sometimes these nutrients behave differently outside of the context of a real food.
Take the carrot, for example… we all know carrots are good for us. You’ve probably heard that they’re high in beta carotene. Well, when researchers have taken beta carotene out of the carrot and given it to people in pill form, it turns out it doesn’t have the same health benefits. Is beta carotene useless? Or is it just useless outside the context of the food it comes from? Context matters.
As another example, there have been studies testing all sorts of vitamin supplements… if we can just figure out what it is that’s so nourishing in those fruits and vegetables, then we can put it in a pill and help everybody! More often than not though, they studies don’t pan out. Vitamins C and E are perfect examples of this. We know they’re important antioxidants, but when taken in a pill, they just don’t function in the same way. Again, it doesn’t mean eating more vitamin C in food has no benefit, just that there’s no benefit to taking it on its own.
Food is far more complex than we know… there are over 200 known nutrients in a carrot and probably even more that we don’t know about. We can’t even begin to identify all of the nutrients in a given fruit or vegetable, let alone understand what they do in our bodies. And what if they interact with each other? What if some nutrients are only useful with the help of others? How will we ever get to the bottom of all that?
Maybe some day we will, but it won’t be any time soon. We would be arrogant to think we truly understand food’s intimate relationship with our bodies. Sometimes, you just have to trust the ancient wisdom of real food… Eat food, not vitamins.