Look around your supermarket. A can of peaches boasts "50 percent less calories," while fresh peaches sit unadorned in a bin. New "spreads" shout that they'll lower your cholesterol, while perfectly healthy butter sits quietly on cool shelves. Pop-Tarts offer "20% DV fiber," while beans—the kings of dietary fiber—are called, simply, beans.
Why are we being bombarded with such sketchy claims? It's mostly marketing, but part of the blame also lies with science. Scientists isolate and identify nutrients, which sounds like a logical way to analyze food. But it isn't. "We eat foods; we don't eat nutrients," says Lisa Young, Ph.D., R.D., a dietitian at New York University.
This focus on individual nutrients can lead to misleading conclusions. Gyorgy Scrinis, Ph.D., a sociologist of science at the University of Melbourne, Australia, calls the mindset "nutritionism." "It's the tendency to celebrate or demonize particular nutrients," he says, "and to take nutrients out of the context of the foods in which they're embedded, and exaggerate their health effects." As a result, nutritionism can inadvertently steer consumers toward processed foods instead of away from them.
There was a time before nutritional science, of course. For centuries, humans followed cultural traditions, not dietary guidelines. The age of nutritionism took flight in the 1970s, when health officials, in an attempt to combat chronic diseases, launched campaigns that vilified natural components of food, such as fat. (Plus, the food industry has kept a few secrets from consumers—read 5 Secrets Food Marketers Don't Want You to Know to find out what they are.)
The result has often been the opposite of what the food police intended. "In response to the low-fat campaign, the food industry has produced numerous commercial products labeled as 'low-fat' or 'fat-free,' but with high amounts of refined carbohydrates and sugar," writes Frank Hu, M.D., Ph.D., and his colleagues at Harvard school of public health in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. But as fat consumption has declined in the United States, they argue, rates of type 2 diabetes and obesity have risen dramatically. And while the benefits of a low-fat diet have been largely debunked, the assumptions of nutritionism continue to lead to the creation of unhealthy foods.
The solution: Ignore the nutrient hype and focus on actual ingredients and whole foods. As an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association put it, with the exception of omega-3 fats, trans fat, and salt, "the greater the focus on nutrients, the less healthful [processed] foods have become."
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