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Nutritionism Posted on 13 June, 2020Leave a comment

At 19, I wanted to become a dietitian. The reason was two-fold, firstly it was a continuation of the health and medical field that I aspired to work in, secondly, it was the only qualification in nutrition which was recognised in Hong Kong. This was 2003, clinical work and the white coat imparted a sense of superiority. If I couldn’t become a doctor, a dietitian is the closest I be?

What followed then were two degrees in nutrition and a career of 15 years to date as a nutritionist. I am familiar with the building blocks of nutrition science – nutrients – and the biochemical pathways for their metabolism that influence health. But community nutrition and public health emerged as an area which I found interesting and pertinent to health promotion that I was passionate about. However, this was a tiny module which seemed less important on the curriculum than other lab-based work.

It wasn’t until I wrote my MSc dissertation when I became aware that factors affecting food choice was a somewhat established area in nutrition. I was working on a paper about food access and nutrition of international students. It was then that I realised nutrient intakes were only as important as understanding the reasons why people were eating in the first place.

This became more pertinent when I wrote my briefing paper on the Diets of Minority Ethnic Groups at the BNF. But I have always struggled to contextualise this in the ‘nutrition’ world. After all, these are subjective world views which should not meddle with the objective science that was nutrition.

‘Nutritionism’ is a paradigm which concerns the reductionist approach to food and eating and regards to their nutritional components only. It argues that nutrition as a discipline, overlooks the complexities of social and cultural ideas that influence eating. This term was popularised by Michael Pollan, the food writer.

Relying solely on information regarding individual nutrients has led people and policy makers to repeatedly make poor decisions relating to nutrition

Michael Pollan

Understanding the works of nutrients has been a key development in health studies for a big part of the 20th century, so it seems a little unfair to pin this down to one single concept. But by the same token, the quest to answer nutrition questions should not be limited to ‘nutraceuticals’ alone.

The problem with feeding has long been an issue as long as humans have existed on earth, and for the most part the idea of ‘social nutrition’ which concerns food access and security were paramount – how populations are fed are shaped by government agendas. And we know from history that social unrests happen when people are not fed well. If we can figure out ways to feed people, health naturally follows. But with so many problems with nutrition alone, we know that this is not a simple question.

One of the problems unfortunately, is how nutrition has been shaped as an individual issue. In the 20th century, we slowly became consumed with medicalised or individual approaches to nutrition. This overlooks the complicated structural factors that influence feeding and ways to keep people healthy – not just physical, but mentally, emotionally and also socially.

I too, started out with strong assertion that nutrition is a medical science. I also thought for the longest time that nutritionists are the only experts in food and health. But everybody eats, and everyone has what we call now a relationship with food, why then should we establish a hierarchy when it comes to what we should be eating?

I have also been around long enough to see how changes in government lead to changes in policies around food and nutrition, and hear/watch how arguments around food take place. Think about the eatwell website (laid to rest in 2011), then changes in what food education is delivered in schools. After all, as much as we want to take politics and money out of how we should feed people, these are important considerations that everyone should understand working in nutrition.

I remember the time when I started my MA in the anthropology of food at SOAS, so many have found it strange for a nutritionist to be interested in food writing, or culture for that matter. I will never forget the reaction when I introduced myself – because someone with my background was just an odd fit. It’s taken me a while to embrace this, and learn to be comfortable working across different sectors in food.

I work professionally as a nutritionist (with current projects in the food service sector and professional consulting), this is something that I remain mindful of and it is also my duty to remember how this knowledge in nutrition should be applied in the wider context of eating.

Another issue is the morality of eating and health is also pertinent to what we think is acceptable to eat – and contributes hugely to nutrition and its ideas. Because we eat foods not nutrients, and there shouldn’t be no good or bad foods. But in a world when we become so lost with what a healthy diet means, some of this messaging gets lost in the technocratic details that include nutrition and traffic light labelling.

I am happy that more people are interested in nutrition, but it is important to know that it is one small subject in food which doesn’t always have the complete picture in food. Agriculture is another area which can have a huge influence in nutrition – cucumbers grown in different soil and animals reared on different feeds surely yield different nutrition profiles?

Yet again farming is considered a different subject, but has huge links to nutritional studies. However, as nutritionists, we don’t often find ourselves working as closely as we should with farm producers. Nutrition science – from which the field of nutrition is built on – remains as the main narrative in our profession, which may risk tunnel-visioning when it comes to diet and health.

This is why ‘nutritionism’ – even as a concept bundled with so much negative connotation and might seem as a direct attack to nutritionists – is worthwhile for us to think about.

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