Is the paleo community falling into nutritionism ?

by 18889 · May 30, 2011 at 04:08 AM

Is the paleo community falling into the nutritoinism so pervasive in the modern world?

"Nutritionism is a paradigm that assumes that it is the scientifically identified nutrients in foods that determine the value of individual food stuffs in the diet" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nutritionism

The alternative view is that real whole foods are more than the sum of the measured nutrients in them. Nutritional science does not yet understand all the components in our food and how they interact. The benefit of real foods is more than simply a sum of vitamins, minerals, macronutrients, antinutrients, phytochemicals etc.

I see people avoiding nuts because of an omega 6 value or some antinutrient or demonising an apple due to a few grams of fructose. Scared to eat plants for fear of phytochemicals or a sweet potato because it has to many grams of carbs. On the other hand people are choosing to eat butter or coconut oil due to specific percentage fatty acids thought to be beneficial.

Avoiding or eating real foods based on a measured number of a specific nutrient is in my opinion counterproductive. All these foods are a complex mix of many different constituents that probably have effects in synergy with each other.

Is eating almonds the same as drinking corn oil? Is eating an apple the same as a can of coke?

It seems to me that people are are counting numbers and losing perpective of the food itself.

What do other people think?

Edit: This essay is an overveiw of the concept of nutritionism. http://www.gyorgyscrinis.com/GS-Nutritionism-Gastronomica.pdf

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10 Replies

55320 · April 16, 2010 at 03:49 PM

IMHO one of the reasons omega-6 fatty acids are harmful is because much of what we consume (and what is used in studies!) is oxidized. It's been through a bunch of processes that expose it to light and heat, which are the major causes of oxidization. Many factories add some antioxidants, but I'm not sure it's enough to balance it out.

Contrast that with a whole nut: it's encased in the dark in a shell and inside the nut there are all kinds of chemicals known to prevent oxidization.

But is a whole nut the same as some almond milk or some roasted almonds bought in the store? I think there are significant differences and that's why I stopped buying commercial almond milk and some random shelled nuts in a plastic container.

I think it's right to question food coming from our messed up food system. I don't think we are in danger of becoming like the vegans, for whom diet is a list of known important nutrients and a pill is as good as a food. Mark Sisson in particular defended nuts, noting that the paleo set point for good isn't a list of nutritional qualities, but a whole unprocessed fresh food.

The problem for me earlier in the paleo diet was that I consumed massive amounts of probably-rancid nuts and honey without thinking of their natural context- in season, fresh, and whole.

Good nuts are particularly hard to get, but chefs know about the oxidization and most buy frozen nuts. Once you have had good fresh nuts, the average nut will taste fairly bad. Talk about distorted set points...

Lately I've been thinking about food synergy since reading this paper. If you want to read it, fill out the contact form on my site and I'll send you it, but basically it's the concept that food is really more complex than most people give it credit for and the synergistic effects of everything within food are poorly understood and are definitely different from consuming a pill or industrially fortified food with the nutrients in the food.

6832 · April 16, 2010 at 05:01 PM

I think that if something such as Cordain's book was the only Paleo source available to us then, yes we would be paleo nutritionists to a certain extent, but I also think that the paleo community today has gotten wise to that closed approach; there are so many people who come to paleo as a way to get back to real eating, partly because some people migrate from the theories and practises of Weston A. Price and Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions and partly because people see the sense in eating in season, whole food, like our Paleolithic ancestors did.

I also believe that this holistic approach has something to do with the number of women now eating paleo and also the popularity of organic, homemade and farm-orientated food out there and the accompanying plethora of education into the benefits of pastured/unprocessed produce.

Whereas, we still have the scientific voice amongst the paleo community keeping us up to date with all our food properties and micro-nutrients in miniscule detail, we now have an upsurge in the people who follow the paleo way of life through practising it and being closer to the earth by listening to how food reacts in their bodies and following other primal lifestyle choices. It is almost as if people are starting to TRUST whole food again and not having to rely so much on what micro-nutrients scientists tell us we should be ingesting. Call it a shift towards re-enactment if you will.

In addition, it is this balance of micro and macro which creates such a successful and vibrant mix of anecdotal and scientific information within the paleo community, which in turn leaves it ultimately up to the individual to follow as close to micro or macro as they desire.

1208 · April 16, 2010 at 09:02 PM

I prefer to take the approach of eating what makes my body feel right. It sounds simple, and perhaps simplistic, but it hasn't failed me yet. Pursuing an understanding of what foods make me feel whole and energetic and healthy is what led me to a Paleo diet. But I can't indiscriminately eat "all" Paleo foods. While many feel that tubers would have had at least some part in a paleolithic diet, I have a food sensitivity to sweet potatoes that makes them clearly unhealthy for me.

I must confess that I have a hard time with some of the phrasing that I see used on this, and other Paleo, sites; so often people seem to be asking about whether or not they "should" be eating one particular food (or micronutrient) or another. I, personally, am not eager to trade one set of food rules and doctrine for another. That said, I think it is immensely valuable to have a forum where we can share our thoughts and opinions regarding non-conventional ideas about food and health, whether those opinions are founded on evolution, experience, or science.

Great question!

78 · April 18, 2010 at 01:42 AM

my answer is yes, all people who do paleo for the diet are nutritionists. frankly, everyone one of us commenting on the internets about our vitamin intake and grains are obsessed/ were obsessed at some point. we have all spent countless hours reading blogs and researching. now, i don't see why nutritionism has to be good or bad. frankly, the only way to learn about food in its current form is to learn a nutritionist's perspective. however, after people learn about food, they need to move on towards a way of appreciating it. our culture is based on reductive science. we can't erase an entire mindset of people's dieting history, but we can tell others to stop simplifying and moralizing their foods. I don't think nutritionism is healthy, but i think it is a personal decision or even a phase that most Americans encounter in their lifetimes. graduating from nutritionism into a healthy lifestyle is the hard part...at least for me...

10194 · April 16, 2010 at 07:45 PM


Yes, we have more to understand about the components in our food and how they interact with our bodies - and yes, I applaud your skepticism --- but your point is one of infinite nebulousness. Your point is what exactly? To eat everything you deem a "whole food"?

Avoiding or eating real foods based on a measured number of a specific nutrient is in my opinion counterproductive. All these foods are a complex mix of many different constituents that probably have effects in synergy with each other.

Yes, wheat as a whole food has a whole slew of nutrients and anti-nutrients -- but given the Paleo framework and my personal reaction to wheat/gluten -- I don't eat it, and am better off for it.

So, is that nutritionism?

Is eating almonds the same as drinking corn oil? Is eating an apple the same as a can of coke?

I dunno. They might be. Modern apples are distinctly different than the fruit we may have encountered in our evolutionary history. It looks as if eating a lot of fructose is incompatible with good health.

But it also depends on time and quantity.

340 · May 18, 2011 at 12:31 AM

Sugar cane is a real food, right?

The balance, which I think everyone here is trying to strike, is choosing real foods and/or supplements in a basket that seems healthiest.

Now, you could argue the Kitavans or Inuit had few ingredients, and seemed to do fine. And maybe that is a good heuristic, to exactly imitate a given indigenous diet. Thing is, if you're going full-Kitavan then you'd better darn like coconut, seafood, fruits, tubers and the occasional seabird. Once you introduce beef or cream or berries, you're in no-man's land, nutritionally. Moreover, unless you've got a 19th century Kitavan on the ouija board, are you sure you're eating the proper mix?

15324 · April 17, 2010 at 08:24 AM

This is an interesting question, but I think the answer is: no. Indeed, I think, if anything the paleo community tends unduly to anti-nutritionism!

The paleo concept itself, is a natural buffer against nutritionism, since it asks, in the first place, what was done by our evolutionary ancestors. That necessarily places focus on the holistic level, rather than the nutritional details. It also makes it easier to place things into a were eaten (acceptable) list versus a were not eaten (unacceptable) list at the level of individual foods.

I think that the important thing though, is that what matters is always the hard physiological fact. What's going on at the level of precise nuts and bolts is what really counts, i.e. what the individual cells of our bodies are doing. As I often note, our cells don't eat foods they digest individual nutrients (hence if butter is just the same saturated fat as that from animals, then it doesn't matter whether it's neolithic or not)*. This is also why I've no problem with not stopping at "What would Grok have eaten after a hunt?" and instead asking "Should I select MUFA or SFA-palmitic acid after a workout to optimise tissue-specific insulin sensitivity?" Looking at the physiological level can also provide important, counter-intuitive answers, such as why people might experience better CVD outcomes eating much more than 4% omega-6 vegetable oil (displacing carbs), if this is far outside our evolutionary niche.

Why I say that the paleo community tends towards anti-nutritionism if anything, is that there seems to be more a focus on questions of historic foodstuffs rather than hard physiological mechanisms. For example, the controversy about CLO and vitamin A often invoked the notion that CLO was "natural" or a "whole food", or the notion that we should eat fruit seasonally (even if we don't have varying vitamin D levels or seasonal starvation), or aversion to low-carb dairy on principle. Basically, I tend to think (the inverse of the recent Richard Nikoley quote) that any prima facie broad-based evolutionary reasoning, can be overturned by hard physiological evidence to the contrary.

As to specific questions of whether, for example, whole nuts are better than processed omega 6, there's typically going to be some good 'nutritionistic' explanation of why this is so (e.g. the actions of the micronutrients in the nuts or the specific harms of heat-oxidised oils). Both nutritionistic or holistic can miss out the salient facts in any individual case, but will typically be able to provide a complementary rationale eventually (it's very rare, for example, to find that super-evolutionary doses of nutrient-x are unequivocally positive).

At base, the best test is going to simply be a controlled trial to just see what happens, once the evidence is in then we should be equally willing to adjust our physiological or our evolutionary hypotheses based on whether supplementing on beta carotene or vitamin D brings either disaster or improvements.

*It isn't, but close enough imo.

77340 · April 19, 2010 at 04:17 PM

No, but I think this site is. This is what "geeks" do - over analyze.

You know the framework for paleo. It's not hard. Don't spend all this time on the internet reading the latest "tips".

To quote Merlin Mann:

Somewhere, a sad, obese man in pristine ASICS scarfs cookie dough over an unopened Runner's World, complaining that he needs more "tips."

401 · April 17, 2010 at 08:20 PM

I would have to say a resounding yes: an example of such nonsense is the avoidance of pork and chicken becuase of the high PUFA in the fat.

Assuming that wild boars are fairly similar to a modern day pig, if you came across a boar in the wild, killed it, ate it, I seriously doubt that your body would 'warn' you in some way that the high PUFA content of the meat will lead to imflammation or whatever new problem we've got to worry about.

It would just probably taste delicious, just like the pastured rare breed pork that i eat does.

Our bodies have very simple ways of telling us what to eat, as long as the food is real: if it tastes good and doesn't make you sick eat it!

(In anticipation of replies about real foods, grains do not taste good, it's the salt content of bread, etc that is attractive)

2088 · April 17, 2010 at 07:19 PM

Eliminating high O6 nuts and stopping my fish oil supplements has been working well for me. I'm not convinced that fish squeezings are, in fact, a good way to "balance" my LA-to-LNA intake.

I'm not really convinced that Paleolithic people ate a lot of polyunsaturated fats anyway. Wild caught fish (even the fatty ones) are actually very low fat period, so it's small amount of O3 in there anyway.

What the polyunsaturated content of a wild fowl is, I don't know, but I bet it's lower than the pastured birds I can buy locally. The primary reason I eat chicken is because it makes such a fantastic bone broth. I think the collagen/gelatin is a good trade off for the PUFAs.

You know, we all pays our monies and takes our choice, don't we? :D

Seriously though, I do see a lot of nutritionism and microanalysis of foods in the online paleo community.

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