Getting Over Nutritionism – Part 1

Escape of the Western Diet


As promised in my post, For You Were Bought with a Price, So Glorify God in Your Body, here is the first of a series of posts to try and help give information about real food and to hopefully help you glorify God in your body.

Glorify God in Your Body

Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food is one of the most enlightening books regarding food and health that I have read. There is so much information out there about nutrition, food, and health but Pollan brings everything together, exposes lies and deceitfulness, and gives unique, helpful, and practical advice on how to eat better and, in return, be healthy.

In Defense of Food - Book

This book is organized into three parts: 1) The Age of Nutritionism, 2) The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization, and 3) Getting Over Nutritionism. I plan on sharing some key points from each part, but because the first two parts can be somewhat daunting, I will begin with the third. In discussing this third part, beginning with this post and continuing on for the next three weeks, I will share a post on each chapter of this third part of the book. I hope that you will find this series of posts helpful and even challenging, as you are working through how to glorify God in your body.

Gyorgy Scrinis, an Australian sociologist of science was the first to use the term “nutritionism,” he did so in an essay discussing margarine. Scrinis explained that margarine has changed many times depending on the current dietary opinion of science and government (from No cholesterol! one year, to No trans fats! the next).[1] Nutritionism is an ideology. In nutritionism, the idea is widely shared (but unexamined) that food is to be understood simply by its nutrients; “Foods are essentially the sum of their nutrient parts.”[2] But in reality, Pollan explains, foods are MORE than the sum of their nutritional parts. Scientists have had many theories about what exactly in the Western diet is the cause for Western diseases (obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, etc), but these theories are all in conflict with one another: “The lipid hypothesis cannot be reconciled with the carbohydrate hypothesis, and the theory that a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids (call it the neolipid hypothesis) is chiefly to blame for chronic illness is at odds with the theory that refined carbohydrates are the key.”[3] It isn’t necessary to claim allegiance to one of these theories in order to know in what way is best to eat. One thing that all scientists DO know and that seems to remain the same, is that people who eat a Western diet are more prone to complex chronic diseases that do not commonly show up among traditional diets.

“The solution to the problem seems to remain the same: stop eating a Western diet.”[4]

What is the Western diet comprised of? The main features of the Western diet are lots of processed foods, meat, lots of added fat and sugar; basically lots of everything except fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Scientists, researchers, and doctors all have theories about the western diet, but with many of them combating one another, it is important to look at what we do know about the Western diet. We know that those who eat a Western diet “suffer substantially higher rates of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity [all are known as Western diseases] than people eating any number of traditional diets.”[5] It is also known that when people come to the West and begin to adopt the Western diet, they also begin to suffer from Western diseases.

Theories of nutrition have significance for the food industry and the medical community more than they do for the people actually eating the food – the significance is more than simply wanting to know more about how food works. These organizations need theories and new diets in order to better design specific processed foods, “A new theory means a new line of products, allowing the industry to go on tweaking the Western diet instead of making any more radical changes to its business model.”[6] They need to have theories that promote the processing of foods – lowering fat, raising omega-3’s, or adding antioxidants and probiotics – so that they do not have to seriously recognize that processed foods are a huge part of the problem. And it is the same for the medical community: new theories = new drugs to treat diabetes, high blood pressure, and cholesterol; new treatments and procedures to mend chronic diseases; new diets to organize for each new theory’s promoting of one nutrient and demotion of another nutrient. The medical community would not profit from a change in the way people eat.[7] Some believe that the food industry and medical community specifically create new theories, diets, and processed foods to gain more income. Whether or not this is the case, it is true that getting rid of theories, diets, and processed foods would require an entirely new business model for the food industry, and even less need for medical care.[8]

So how does one escape from nutritionism? How does a person escape from the harmful effects of the Western diet? Denis Burkitt (an English doctor stationed in Africa during WWII), who gave Western diseases their name, provides a pretty straightforward answer to these questions: “The only way we’re going to reduce disease, is to go back to the diet and lifestyle of our ancestors.”[9] I have mentioned the case of the Aborigines in a previous post; Burkitt’s answer seems to be implying that people must go back to the bush, but this isn’t what he had in mind. There is a way to practically escape from nutritionism without going back to the bush.[10] It is easier said than done to simply stop eating and thinking the Western way, especially because of the food environment we live in today. Scrinis (who created the term nutritionism) explains that the biggest and most important thing to think about when dealing with food consumption is not the nutritional content, but the degree of processing. He says,

“Whole foods and industrial foods are the only two food groups I’d consider including in any useful food ‘pyramid.’”[11]

Simply make sure that the foods you avoid are the ones that have been processed so much that they are more a product of industry than a product of nature.

Unfortunately, industrial processing has plagued whole foods as well. Pollan explains,

“Is steak from a feedlot steer that has consumed a diet of corn, various waste products, antibiotics, and hormones still a ‘whole food’? I’m not so sure. The steer has itself been raised on a Western diet, and that diet has rendered its meat substantially different – in the type and amount of fat in it as well as its vitamin content – from the beef our ancestors ate. The steer’s  industrial upbringing has also rendered its meat so cheap that we’re likely to eat more of it more often than our ancestors ever would have. This suggests yet another sense in which this beef has become an industrial food: It is designed to be eaten industrially too – as fast food.”[12]

With industrial processing butting in to so many areas, it isn’t easy to get away from the Western diet, but it is possible.

The “rules” to get out of the Western diet are straightforward. They are so much simpler than worrying about nutrients or calories or changing your entire menu; they don’t even discuss specific foods. Even though these things are not something to worry about outside of the Western diet, eating in line with the rules will give you a balance of nutrients and change the amount of calories in people’s diet. These rules are simple to run through when looking for food or meal planning. “These will produce many different dinners, all ‘healthy’ in the broadest sense of the word.”[13]

And our definition of health does need broadening, according to Pollan. He explains that health is not about how a certain nutrient (or rejection of it) affects our physical health and says that people cannot separate their bodily health from the environment from which or in which they eat. Eating is part of a food chain in which the chain begins even before our food starts to grow:


Health of the soil –> to the health of the plants and animals we eat –> to the health of the food culture in which we eat them –> to the health of the eater in body and mind.[14]

These rules (which will be explained in the coming weeks) are not only concerned with what to eat, but also with how to eat it and how the food is produced. Pollan reminds his readers that “food is not just a pile of chemicals; it is a set of social and ecological relationships, reaching back to land and outward to other people.”[15] Some rules require a bit more work, but eating well involves more time, effort, and resources than most Westerners put into eating today – with the slogan of the Western diet being fast, cheap, and easy.


Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” [16]

The thought behind having simple – yet extremely effective – rules is to make the process of escaping the Western diet more simple and pleasurable than having to worry about numbers and nutrients (as nutritionism encourages us to do). Here is a short summary of each of the three rules that Pollan discusses (and will be explained further in the coming weeks):

  • Eat food: practical ways to separate and defend real food from food-like products that surround and confound us, especially in the supermarket. This rule is partially concerned with shopping, giving filters that help keep out products that people should want to avoid.
  • Mostly Plants: specifically and affirmatively focusing on the best types of foods (not nutrients) to eat. More than just fruits and veggies.
  • Not too much: shifts from foods themselves to how to eat them – the manners, mores, and habits that go in to creating a healthy, and pleasing, culture of eating.[17]

In the next three weeks I will unpack these three “rules” that Pollan gives. I cannot tell you how helpful these rules have been to me since the start of this trek. Please feel free to share things that have been helpful to you, or changes that you have made to have a healthier lifestyle.

In Defense of Food - Illustration
Image credit: Austin Kleon – A Writer Who Draws.

I am thankful that taking care of my body through eating well isn’t only for me, but for the glory of God. I would not have such motivation if it were simply for my gain, although I definitely do benefit from it. It is a privilege that I am able to glorify God in my body!

signature - lightblue

Other posts in this series:
For You Were Bought With A Price, So Glorify God in Your Body
Part 2
Part 3.1
Part 3.2
Part 3.3
Part 4.1

If you would like to purchase this book, you can buy it on Amazon here.
Click here to see more books I recommend, and here for other books I have reviewed.

[1] Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food – Page 27. [2] Page 28. [3] Pages 139-140. [4] Page 141. [5] Page 90. [6] Page 141. [7] Page 141. [8] Page 41. [9] Page 142. [10] Page 142. [11] Page 143. [12] Page 143. [13] Page 144. [14] Page 144. [15] Pages 144-145. [16] Page 146. [17] Page 146.


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