Do we choose to eat nutrients or food?

For this week’s post I read this fascinating article in the New York Times by Michael Pollan entitled “Unhappy Meals”.

Pollan discusses the rise of the ideology “nutritionism” in which scientists dissect foods down to their nutrient components and share this information with consumers who then use this information to make decisions about what they are going to eat. He explains that we have fallen prey to this idea that it is the nutrients that matter and not the food. That is how boxes of frosted flakes fly off the shelves and parents justify it because they have “calcium”. In reality, spinach is a much better source of calcium, but because it doesn’t have a label that specifically tells consumers that, they are often apt to go with the frosted flakes or [insert any processed food here].

I have never read anything by Pollan before, but I think this idea is absolutely revolutionary as well as logical- a wonderful, rare combination. When we talk about health or a balanced diet we usually speak in terms of nutrients or categories rather than whole foods. We take supplement after supplement to add to our daily intake of vitamins and minerals. Choosing foods has come down to a check list for many. Have I gotten my vitamin C in today? No, better have some orange  juice- hey look that will give me vitamin D and calcium also! Don’t have to gulp down that glass of milk later-phewf!

I particularly liked the section when he discussed eating in other cultures and the baffling anomaly that is the French diet: fats, alcohol, cheese, bread, and yet they’re all so beautiful!

When I spent a semester in Spain, I could not believe what everyone was eating: French fries at LITERALLY every meal, ham, sausage, eggs, potatoes, and no vegetables except the occasional white asparagus, all paired with glass after glass of wine. I went weeks without eating anything green. Worst of all, when I tried to order a salad I was horrified to discover salad translated to a head of iceberg lettuce covered in canned tuna swimming in mayo. I felt as though my arteries were clogging up, my skin was breaking out, and I could not figure out why Spain was not the most obese country in the world. However, much to my amazement, my clothes weren’t fitting that much tighter.



For example, this was a sandwich I attempted to eat in Spain- it had 7 different kinds of meat between some pieces of bread, grilled covered in cheese and topped with an egg and gravy surrounded by french fries. It is a local classic: the equivalent to a burger and a heart attack.

It’s a completely different lifestyle over there. They spend hours strolling around, talking to each other: enjoying life. One thing that really stuck out to me was that no one ever ate while walking. People sat on the side of the street, in the middle of the plaza, on a bench, wherever, to enjoy their food and never alone. Eating and food was part of a lifestyle that is so opposite from ours. The Spaniards are not checking off their vitamins and minerals everyday, but they are active and social and make food and eating synonymous with pleasure and enjoyment. They don’t over indulge, they don’t stuff themselves, they don’t take 800 supplements a day, and they certainly don’t sweat it if they eat potatoes 3 times in a day.

As Pollan pointed out, calcium, saturated fat, and riboflavin are not food. You can’t see them, touch them, smell them, or taste them, but we make such a point to eat them everyday. So much so that we often don’t care what form they come it: plastic caplet casing, sugar-coated wheat flake, packaged breakfast bar, or whole fruits and vegetables.

Now I’m not advocating that we all eat like the Spanish- I can tell you from experience there is definitely such a thing as too many French fries- but we can take a page from their book. We can sit down and enjoy the foods we eat instead of the nutrients that make them up.