‘American paradox’

There is this weird thing that I call the American paradox. We are among the peoples of the Earth who have the most concern about nutrition. We worry a lot about it, we read books about it, we listen to the government about it, we listen to doctors about it.

And yet, nevertheless — and here’s the paradox — we have some of the lousiest nutritional health in the world. We are the champs in Type II diabetes, in obesity, in heart disease, in all the kinds of cancer that are linked to diet. So how can it be? How can we be so confused and so dysfunctional in our relationship to food?

That’s the kind of question I’m going to try to get at.

I thought a lot about how we could have gotten to this weird place with food. I spent a year or two studying nutrition, reading all I could about, What do we really know for sure about nutrition and health? And I thought that would not be a hard question to answer, but it turned out to be a very hard question.

The more I got into it — and I’ll tell you before this evening is over what we do know, what we think we know, and what we don’t know, which is bigger and even more important — but that it occurred to me that it is the way we think about food in this culture. It is the ideology we bring to food and our eating decisions that really is the problem.

And, you know, an ideology is something we’re not aware of, it’s kind of the air we breathe, it’s the unspoken assumptions. And I think if we bring them out into the light, we will see that there’s something wrong with them.

I call this ideology nutritionism. It’s not a science, it’s an -ism. And like all other -isms, it’s that way of organizing experience that is happening below the level of consciousness. It’s the set of unspoken premises behind our attitude toward something. So let me lay out for you what I see is the four tenets for nutritionism, and you tell me if they don’t accord with your sense of food or perhaps your sense of how other people view food.

The first and most obvious idea behind nutritionism is that the key to understanding food is the nutrients — that foods are essentially delivery systems to bring nutrients into your body, and that foods are essentially the sum of their nutrient parts. So if you get the carbohydrates right and the fats right and the vitamins and antioxidants, that’s really the stuff that matters. And that is how we’ve been talking about food in this country for a very long time.

Now, what follows from that, if you accept that premise, it’s a reductionist scientific premise, that foods are the sum of their nutrient parts, here’s what follows: That since these nutrients are invisible, since we cannot experience them directly, we don’t smell nutrients, only scientists through their microscopes can show us the nutrients, we need experts to tell us how to eat.

As soon as you accept this nutrient premise, you have given all the power over to over your eating decisions to the people who understand nutrients. It’s a lot like a religion (laughter). If what really matters is the intangible, the ineffable, then you need a priesthood to mediate between you and the really important things. And so we have this highly professionalized food culture where, to a remarkable extent, we rely on experts to tell us what to eat.

Okay, that’s premise No. 2. So it falls to scientists and journalists and government food pyramids and public health experts to tell us what to eat.

So the third premise, and this one will seem completely obvious: The whole point of eating is health. That when we eat, we are either doing things to improve our health or ruin our health, but that is the key metric. Now it’s important to remember, as Americans especially, that people around the world and throughout time have eaten for a great many other reasons (laughter).

They’ve eaten because they’re hungry. They’ve eaten for pleasure. They’ve eaten for the sense of community that comes from sitting with others around the table, breaking bread together. They eat for ritual purposes — how many of the world’s religions have an act of eating at the center? They’ve eaten for reasons having to do with identity – “you’re the people who eat this,” “you’re the people who don’t eat that.” Think of all the people you know who define themselves by vegetarianism, or veganism, or carnivorism, or whatever set of rules they’ve devised to express their identity through food.

So there’s all the others really interesting, and equally valid reasons, for eating. But for some reason here in America, we focus almost exclusively on that health question. Very interesting.

Fourth and last — there’s some other aspects of nutritionism but we don’t have to get into them — like almost every other ideology I can think of, nutritionism divides the world into good and evil. So there are good and evil nutrients. And at any moment in our dietary history in this country there is some evil nutrient, some satanic nutrient we’re driving out of the food supply. And there’s a blessed nutrient on the other side we’re trying to get as much of as possible.

So in our time, what’s the evil nutrient? (Audience: High-fructose corn syrup! Trans fat!) These are the evil nutrients that, if we just get them out of our diet, we’ll be healthy and we’ll pretty much live forever.

And on the blessed side, what’s the great blessed nutrient of the moment? (Audience:Flavonoids! Fiber! Omega-3 fatty acids!) And I’ll enter a prediction for you today, the next evil nutrient coming down the pike, if you want to short it (laughter), is omega-6 fatty acid. It’s an essential fatty acid, but it’s in competition with blessed omega-3, pushing omega-3 out of the cells. And the blessed omega-3s are not as strong as the omega-6s (laughter), so we’re looking at a whole raft of products that will be omega-6-free. Within the year, I predict.

And we are seeing already, 156 products that advertise themselves as high-fructose corn syrup-free, so as long as you eat those — yeah, they might have those pounds of sugar, but they won’t have high-fructose corn syrup.

So this is how we organize food. It’s this Manichean struggle between good and evil. And the challenge of eating, essentially, is to get plenty of the good nutrients and avoid the bad nutrients, and that’s the key to health and happiness. And that’s really how we’ve organized our eating in this country for a very long time — this is not new.