Don't Be Fooled by Nutritionism


Nowadays it’s hard to think of food without thinking of nutrients- the chemical components found in food like antioxidants, fiber, or saturated fat.

The term “nutritionism,” coined by the sociologist Georgy Scrinis in 2002, refers to the idea that specific properties of foods (i.e. nutrients) are sufficient to make them healthy regardless of the other nutritional values. Therefore, the presence of a nutrient like antioxidants and the absence of a nutrient like cholesterol can instantly make a food “healthy.”

This concept really took off in the 1970’s with what I like to call the SnackWell’s Diet. Research had found that fat (all fat, at that time) was bad for the heart, so people started to obsess with fat-free everything. Henceforth, the belief that SnackWell’s cookies were healthier because they were fat-free (absence of a nutrient). We forgot that SnackWell’s are still cookies of which the main ingredients are refined/white flour and sugar, a food that is seriously lacking in positive nutritional value regardless of being fat-free.

Because of this shift in the way we view food, the food industry has been able to create countless justifications for junk food (fake food, in my book) by saying it has more nutrients than the real food. For instance, some of these health claims sound like…

*Cheerios having 50% of our daily value of folic acid (important vitamin B)
*Splenda (an artificial sweetener) having essential nutrients like antioxidants or fiber (really?)
*Candy having low cholesterol (when cholesterol is only found in animal products…)
And the list goes on and on.

It’s important to be aware of nutritionism, and know that a whole food is more than its nutrient parts. For example, a whole food will always have more nutrients than a double fiber donut, you know what I mean? (GOOD!)

A few tips to avoid being trapped by nutritionism:
- know that nutritionism sells and is often used as a sales ploy
- eat whole food (not processed or junk food)
- read the ingredient list, if you don’t recognize something, don’t eat it
- cook more– know what you are eating and how it was made from start to finish

It’s a lot easier to slap a healthy claim on a box of cereal than it is on an apple. So, be aware of these health claims and be nutritionism-savvy.

AMAZING READ: Pollan M. In Defense of Food.

Eat Food

To say “eat food” might seem kind of silly. "Of course I’m going to eat FOOD!" But if you stop and think about it, a lot of what we eat in Canada today doesn’t really resemble actual whole foods. Cereals that are full of sugar and sodium; processed meats so full of sodium, preservatives, and fillers that they look like a far cry from something that actually came from a cow; desserts that can sit on a store shelf for months and months without going bad…. I could go on and on.


Our typical way of eating has undergone a huge shift from the way our great, great-grandpa and grandma ate. And we now have the negative health consequences that go along with this new way of eating. Even though we’re more nutrition-conscious than ever, we’re becoming less and less healthy, with chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, obesity, and cancer on the rise.

So that’s why I’d like to propose a change in the way we think about what we choose to eat. In his book “In Defense of Food”, journalist and author Michael Pollan puts forth a very simple, but potentially revolutionary, idea: Eat food, mostly plants, not too much. (More info about Michael Pollan and “In Defense of Food” available at ) It’s a great read and one that will challenge the way you think about food and eating, and that will hopefully change what and how you eat. Tonight, I’m going to focus on the first part of this idea: eat food.


When I say “eat food”, what do I mean? Here it is:

  • Try to eat foods as close to their natural form as possible
  • Make meals from scratch as much as possible
  • Make buying and preparing healthy foods a priority
  • Don’t overthink it!

Try to eat foods as close to their natural form as possible

Here are a couple of good examples:  choose skinless chicken breasts or thighs and bake or grill them at home, instead of choosing chicken fingers;  buy a bag of steel-cut oats and cook up a couple of breakfasts worth and portion them out in the fridge for quick breakfasts instead of flavoured packaged instant oatmeal (cook steel-cut oats in milk for some added protein and flavour with a little brown sugar and lots of cinnamon - DELICIOUS!); stock up on whole grains (like quinoa, brown or wild rice, bulgur, etc) and season with fresh-ground pepper or your favourite herbs or spices, instead of going for the instant flavoured white rice. Following this guideline will help you make healthier - and, in my mind, more tasty - choices. Also, simple staples like whole grains, legumes (lentils, beans, and chickpeas), frozen veggies and fruits, and eggs are fairly cost-effective, which is a nice bonus!


Make meals from scratch as much as possible

I can already hear some of you groaning, "But I don’t have time to do that!"  Yes, it can take a lot of time if you want it to, but it doesn’t always have to. Take making your own salad dressing for instance… Just whisk together equal parts of olive oil and your choice of vinegar (balsamic, red wine, white wine, and cider are all great!) and some dried oregano, and in literally TWO MINUTES you have a good-for-you, real-food, super tasty dressing! Or how about homemade pizzas for dinner instead of one from the freezer section of the grocery store or a take-out one. Just spread a little tomato sauce on a wholegrain pita, sprinkle some partly-skim cheese, load on the fresh veggies (I love spinach, tomatoes, red onion, and peppers on mine), add some of last night’s leftover chicken if you want, a little basil or oregano and then bake it in the oven for 10 minutes. Dinner’s ready in 20 minutes!


Make buying and preparing healthy foods a priority

Does eating healthy take some extra time and energy? Yes. But I firmly believe that the benefits far outweigh the costs. Plan out a week’s worth of suppers and base your grocery list off of that so you can go to the grocery store knowing exactly what you need (and then you won’t have to ask yourself “What am I going to make for dinner??” on your way home from work!). And while you’re at the grocery store, try to spend more time around the perimeter of the store- that’s where you typically find the fresh fruits and veggies, fresh meats, eggs, dairy, and some whole grains. Those middle aisles do house some other healthy foods (such as beans and lentils, whole grains, olive oil, nuts and seeds, etc), but they’re also often home to chips, pop, sugary cereals and granola bars, and sodium-ladden sauces, condiments, and ‘instant’ foods. So just be mindful of that.


Don’t overthink it!

Through working with clients, talking with friends and family, and my own experiences, I’ve found that we often tend to overthink things - especially when it comes to what we should be eating. So keep it simple: drink water, have vegetables or fruit as part of every meal, choose meat alternatives (like beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, nuts and seeds, Greek yogurt) more often than meat, choose whole grains instead of refined grains (ie. switch out white rice for quinoa at supper), and pay attention to when your body tells you that it’s full.

I hope that these simple thoughts have challenged you to rethink your view of what you call “food”. Healthy eating doesn’t have to be complicated, expensive, and time-consuming. It can be simple, cost-effective, quick and easy, AND delicious!

Happy eating!


PS- I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and whether you’d like me to write more posts about food and nutrition! :)