Nutritionism As Straw Target

Originally published on LiveJournal, 2.4.07

Here’s my 2 cents in a discussion going on about this article, Unhappy Meals by Michael Pollan.

Pollan is stubbornly and dangerously wrong, and mostly because his argument is (I almost never use this word, but in this case it’s appropriate) ethnocentric. See smug statements like these:

"Humans deciding what to eat without expert help — something they have been doing with notable success since coming down out of the trees — is seriously unprofitable if you’re a food company, distinctly risky if you’re a nutritionist and just plain boring if you’re a newspaper editor or journalist."

Really, we’ve been doing it with notable success since we “came down from the trees”? The bread and butter of some archaeologists (excuse the pun!) is showing how badly major shifts in modes of food production and consumption have treated the human body. Civilization (in the technical sense: the move to city-states, agriculture by the rivers, etc.) did horrible things to us, at first: it stooped our bodies, weakened our bones and allowed for new diseases. The move out of cities, to pastoralism and nomadism, was in some ways a conscious move to better health (and less taxation): the Mongols were proud of their bodies as compared to the weak ones of city dwellers. And people who still “live in the trees” (I’ll take that annoying term to refer to hunter-gatherers) have diets far-ranging in their healthiness. There are definitely many peoples who get a very partial diet, and with ill effects, sometimes dealt with in “cultural” contexts. For example, a bad diet that causes all your hair and teeth to fall out when you’re 16 becomes embedded in a ritual of passing. Functionally, these can be analyzed are coping mechanisms: an awareness that they are doing poorly compared to, say, neighbors by the seashore who have access to fish and a better diet, becomes entrenched as a matter of personhood, that includes bodies that eat certain things and lose hair when they are 16.

But I’m not trying to be Maussian here, overwhelming you with the cultural rainbow of possibilities for eating. There are severe problems right now> with broken rainbows. For example, many third world diets are horribly low on iodine. Iodine deficiency is easily and very cheaply solved by adding iodine to salt, but in many places there is local resistance due to the usual cultural and political reasons, which Pollan’s paranoia would exacerbate. What my “great-great-grandmother” recognizes as food, to use Pollan’s victorious phrase, may be very, very flawed judgment. Her generation might be wrongly suspicious of, for example, iodine. And it’s not journalists that such grandmothers blame — it’s usually racialized international and national politics: conspiracy theories abound about white men trying to lessen “our” fertility with iodized salt. It’s exactly the education on “nutrients,” which Pollan hates so much, which is key to getting us out of this harmful tangle. (He also encourages us to avoid products containing ingredients that are “unfamiliar.” So, if I don’t know exactly what iodine is, I should avoid it? Great advice!)

He’s right only in the narrow sense that “awareness” of certain things, such as nutrients in this case, often leads to fetishism, or any -ism. This is true in most every aspect of our productive/consumptive life: credit ratings, fashion trends, political correctness. Thus the extreme yuppie obsession with “health and wellness,” which contains a not-too-secret condemnation of anything and everything that has ever been associated with the working class (and its politics). The New Man sees himself as Primeval Man, really: closer to “nature” than we have been in millennia. Labor and social evolution and history disappears as the leisure class flows like silk between Pilates studios, meditation retreats, raw food restaurants, and identities. And yet it takes 10,000 laborers trapped in a black-and-white world of racial, gendered and ethnic social prisons to sustain a single fluid yuppie. (Just as it took 10,000 laborers to sustain the leisure of the ancient city-state elite.) That’s all the same old: I’m most concerned, myself, with the change in attitude. The hippies turning into yuppies in the late 1970s marked an historically contingent shift in the obsession with the Self: after the abject failure of the 70s social movements, the new postmodern political mantra of the middle class became “think globally, act locally,” which translates into “change yourself and you will change the world.” The Self, fetishized. My great-great-grandma would recognize it as selfishness.

Pollan does injustice, too, to the food-as-medicine “ideology,” as he calls it, again with misguidedly ethnocentric fury. In much of East Asia, there’s no real difference, traditionally, between food and medicine, but, more importantly, there’s little anxiety about such difference. In China, you would eat carrots because they taste good, because they are available for cheap, or because a doctor would recommend eating them as part of a packaged treatment for your symptoms.

Again, he’s right in a narrow sense: because we know that “we are what we eat,” anxieties can be created by politicians and industrial lobbies abusing scientific studies. While the case of iodine is cut and dry, the case of trans fats isn’t, and statistics can be used, as Homer Simpson famously said, to prove anything. Instead of attacking “nutritionism,” as he calls it (which is really attacking science), he should attack statisticism, our guiding our lives according to charts and tables, maximums and minimums. Any good scientist knows that correlation doesn’t equal causation, but anxieties about health and wellness (and our desire to achieve middle class perfection) make us, and some scientists, forget it. He’s right that bad science exists, but it’s bad science paid for by strong lobbies, or motivated by pseudo-scientific heroism (vitamins can save the world!) and thus suspect. Pollan, however, urges no distinction here. He mistrusts any and all science of eating. Worst of all, he uses correlation to “prove” that this science is wrong. See this:

"But after several decades of nutrient-based health advice, rates of cancer and heart disease in the U.S. have declined only slightly (mortality from heart disease is down since the '50s, but this is mainly because of improved treatment), and rates of obesity and diabetes have soared."

And this “proves” what exactly about “nutrient-based health advice”?

This hatred of science has a counterpart for Pollan. He says “Let culture be your guide, not science.” He even gives us this example, as regards to our eating too much: “Food abundance is a problem, but culture has helped here, too, by promoting the idea of moderation.” The “O RLY” owl would like to remind Pollan that “moderation” has brought with it extremes: eating disorders. So, if culture tells us to be micro-thin, should we let it guide us?

Here’s my recommendation: Let good science be your guide, and be wary of the politicization of culture by those out to make a profit.

It’s hard, though, to be wary without slipping into paranoia and conspiracy theory, especially when conspiracies are often true (i.e., tobacco). These thoughts come as I’m reading ethnographies of Russia in the 1990s, just as the USSR economic system was being “unmade,” in Caroline Humphrey’s words. During the Soviet era, Western goods were a sign of luxury and a certain social freedom. In the 90s, however, they became a sign of corrupt politics and mafias trying to capitalize on the frenzy for Western goods. People moved from being crazy about Western goods to being paranoid about what they might contain and how they might affect them. I simply don’t have good advice for sifting through these facts, yet, though I do think that such ethnographies, bringing together social facts, politics, history and bodies, can help us avoid unwarranted paranoia.