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Nutritionism - a book review

Does it seem to you that nutritional advice is constantly changing?  One moment eggs are bad, and then they're good again?  Low carbs or high carbs diet?  Do you wonder what you should actually be eating to maintain good health?  You're perfectly right, the advice really does keep changing, just like every other aspect of science, when new discoveries or information displace the old theories. One of the common misconceptions about the scientific method is that scientific theories are absolute truths. Unfortunately this is only encouraged by the popular media, and even government organisations, in their attempts to educate the public about the latest scientific findings. This is a particular problem for nutrition science, as unlike some more abstract areas of science, most people do take an interest in the latest nutrition advice and can find the regular changes quite confusing. 

In Gyorgy Scinis’ book Nutrisionism - the science and politics of dietary advice, nutrisionism is defined as the "reductive" study of nutrients in isolation, or in small groups, rather than as part of a whole diet or in context as part of food.
"This myth of nutritional precision involves an exaggerated representation of scientists' understanding of the relationships among nutrients, foods and the body.  At the same time, the disagreements and uncertainties that exist within the scientific community tend to be concealed from, or misrepresented to, the lay public."        Gyorgy Scrinis in Nutritionism - the science and politics of dietary advice
The book is not an "easy read", it is scholarly in nature and incredibly thorough, with plenty of references and footnotes, but not beyond the lay-nutritionist, just don’t expect to finish it quickly. Gyorgy explains the evolution of the scientific theories behind the nutrition advice, and it becomes quite clear how we have got into this state of conflicting advice. Nutrition science is a relatively new field, even in the early 20th century scientists had not yet identified vitamins and recommended a diet based entirely on protein. Vegetables seemed to be completely unnecessary back then. As nutrition scientists have gradually come to understand more and more about how our bodies metabolise food and what is required firstly for normal growth, and then for not ending up with chronic illnesses, they have regularly changed their theories.

The other problem with nutrition science is the involvement of the food industry, which has strived to manipulate the science, and the official interpretation of the science. Throughout the book Gyorgy refers to the example of margarine, once a poor cousin of butter, then glorified by its vegetable fat content, then vilified for its trans-fat content, but coming out on top again as a "functional food" full of plant sterols to reduce cholesterol. It seems that the food industry is always ready to adjust their formulations to take advantage of the latest science, but adjusting the ingredients in processed foods does not necessarily improve our nutrition.  
Gyorgy’s conclusion is that we should consider the quality of the food, defined by the amount of processing and the primary production methods, rather than the individual nutrient content. For example, pure butter from grass-fed organic cows has very little processing as compared to margarine made using a chemical process, from vegetable oil which has also been chemically extracted from seeds, than may also have been grown using synthetic fertilisers and pesticides and GM seeds. I really can’t fault that advice as a strategy for good nutrition.

This is a challenging and rewarding read for anyone interested in the development of nutrition science. It also proposes a sensible alternative to reductionist nutritionism, choosing food based on the quality, with regard to processing and primary production, which I found quite satisfying and much easier to remember than all the conflicting advice.

Here is a taste-tester of Gyorgy’s writing.  I was provided with a review copy of the book by the publishers, Allen and Unwin.

Do you find nutrition advice confusing?  What do you think of the advice to eat mostly unprocessed whole foods?

The Self Sufficient HomeAcre


  1. I believe we should eat, mostly anyway, fresh, unprocessed food. Stay away from numbers, packaging, advertising. None of it is good.

    We mostly eat what we grow, picked fresh, cooked simply...I like to think that I'd be in worse condition if we didn't but I could be kidding myself...and a lot of people say that 6 Oranges in 1 day is too much...but they are there, they are yummy-as and someones gotta eat em.


  2. Yes I do find nutrition advice confusing! I think unprocessed is the key to everything . I think I would really enjoy reading this book because it puts the science in ,and by the sound of it , doesn't rely on the advice of scientests actually employed by the food industry.
    The food industry is currently creating a climate that makes us untrustful of their studies and we , as consumers, will less inclined to buy their product as a result.
    Give me a cow/goat/chicken /vege patch and I think we have the perfect formula for living longer!

  3. I studied nutrition in the seventies and gosh it sure was different! A lot of research has been done, and now we are swamped with so much information that it is mind boggling. We also have to be more aware of who has done the research that we are reading. I find a lot of people these days look at food in the context of the nutrients they contain. They eat a banana because they want the calcium, not simply because it looked good, it tastes good and the simple fact that they were hungry! Simple carbs and complex carbs are lumped together, whereas I think most people could rightly say they are on a no starch diet, not a no carb diet. Somehow we have lost the enjoyment of eating fresh healthy food when we are hungry, and stopping before we are full.

  4. Gyorgy Scini's “Nutritionism” is a very good book. There was a recent interview with him on Radio National's First Bite. It works well with Michael Pollan's simple guideline “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

    I suppose the problem with the authorities who publish guidelines is they take a long time to get any consensus as to what they will publish and then those committees may have members who skew the end result in that search for consensus. Then of course the educational bodies have to follow those skewed guidelines when designing courses.

    Barb, Kim and africanaussie have the right idea.

  5. That looks like an interesting read. I think a lot of us take the nutritional advice of the day with a grain of salt, as it does keep changing, and like a lot of scientific research, fails to take a holistic view of health and wellbeing.
    I think eating as naturally as possible, as close to the source as possible and with as little processing and use of chemicals (anywhere in the food chain) as possible is a sensible approach. Moderation and common sense don't go astray either!
    Great review.

  6. Looks good! I've sent the link to my hubby who has a great interest in this side of nutrition and the food industry...

  7. "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants"- Michael Pollan.... some of the best advice ever! And part of what makes science so interesting is that for a while, sometime hundreds of years of human history, a fact is considered "truth" until something comes around and knocks it down. That's just part of the scientific method!

  8. I don't pay much attention to all the changing nutritional advice. Thanks for sharing your review!

    Please join us again Thursday at:
    The HomeAcre Hop



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