In Defence of Nutrition Science

I'm lucky to be part of a book club, which has been a great way to meet new people and read outside of my own book preferences (which are fantasy, sci fy and anything to do with food). This sounds like i'm leading in to talk about a book outside of this very short list. Nope, I am going to comment on a book I picked. Which of course was about food.

In defence of food by Michael Pollan. Ok I highly recommend Pollans' books, especially 'Cooked' and 'An Omnivores Challenge', which is why this was my pick.

I've got a tiny bit of beef with this book. I felt like science was attacked, and really it is a great book so please read it.

Nutrition science gets a pretty bad rap in this book, and perhaps this is due to the source - Pollan grew up in and lives in America. The American food landscape seemed to fast track to a whole next level of fast food, and isn't as applicable to Aus, and so maybe there were less 'ahah' moments for me. I'm also completing my nutrition degree, so know more than the average person which leads me to feel like some of this is obvious. Global and local food systems are flawed, but the situation is a lot less dire in Aus. 

It isn't food industry practices that I have come to defend, rather it is nutrition scientists. I couldn't help but get the feeling that Pollan didn't come away from his research with a very good opinion of nutrition scientists and nutritionists in general. It came to the point where I almost think he feels we are in collusion with the food industry. Some do work for the food industry, however others do not. So try not to think we are all evil, most of us want you to eat how he suggests. Eat food, mostly plants..... I mean the dietary guidelines actually say this....

OK in defence of food science, it's been a rocky road, i'll admit that. Let me point out, as Pollan does in his book, that dietary intake is extremely hard to measure, however we do our best. The ability to decide what measurement methods actually have the best accuracy and precision has taken a while, and this has been helped by ongoing research and advancements in technology. Yes there are still issues but no other way to measure diet without potentially causing harm (constant monitoring... the ethics of controlling every interaction around food...?).

Its not just the aforementioned advances that dictate where science focuses, there are trends in science, led by economic reform and by political and public opinion. Which is when we get side tracked, nutritionists currently are moving away from the reductionist view of vitamins and minerals and more to food groups and patterns over all. However you have the media thrusting specific micronutrients into the lime light (via superfoods) and the growing supplement industry, therefore it has made sense that as scientists discovered vitamins and minerals that they explored the health effects good and bad, and continue to do so as science is about exploration. If something seemed particularly amazing, it can make its way into the national media before it is fully checked and there we have issues about medias poor ability to report on scientific studies.

 In other cases the loudest scientist in the room is the one who's research gets published and extolled as the best option (ever wonder where the low fat craze came from?). Around the time Ancel Keys was using the results form the seven countries study and had put forward a correlation between dietary fat and CVD, John Yudkin wrote a book (Pure, White & Deadly; 1972)  on the health risks of overconsumption of sugar. One scientist was better at self promotion and networking, which one do you think it was?

Nutrition science is still quite new, and it's kind of exciting (to me). We only discovered vitamins and minerals a short time ago in the scheme of things, and when scientists did, and they discovered that these components of food could help prevent disease, how excited do you think they were?

So yes in summary it turns out that isolating some vitamins and minerals and giving in LARGE doses to individuals does no good, it in fact can do harm. It was also found that getting people to eat proper food was very important, and no one was denying this, however disease was on the rise and as human nature dictates, quick nutrition fixes were sought (fortification). The food matrix is pretty important (basically what the vitamins and minerals come in), and the positive effect can't entirely be attributed  to the one vitamin (see al research on beta-carotene and lung cancer). It has taken a good 50 years to get to this point. With capitalism, growing populations and more efficient (but not great for the environment) farming methods, we have sadly ended up with a food industry in need of help. Nutrition scientists have definitely got their heads around what needs to be done, but change can be slow. 

Nutrition science is now moving away from the reductionist view, we're far more focussed on the whole food, and diet pattern approach. Which actually helps us reduce measurement error as its easier to rank and measure patterns than nutrients. So we've come back to what is deemed traditional foods. Although it was not ever really suggested by scientists we move away from these, there was just a focus on improving what people already ate. 

So yes some of it was wrong, but not done maliciously, after all science is a process of coming up and disproving theories. (Medical science has a longer history of mistakes, because its been around for longer, and I trust in medical science, I hope this culture of distrusting scientific communities disappears).

Read the book. It may not feel revolutionary, some people have been spouting this stuff for years. And if you ask 'why do you suggest eating fortified foods?' it's because some people, well the general public don't eat your fruit and veg, and so we try to at least fortify what you do eat...... (salt and bread ahem). This public health initiatives have  helped reduce public health issues such as iodised salt and folate fortified bread to prevent neural tube birth defects, which has been one of the most successful interventions. However it was never done to suggest that these were ever a replacement for a complete diet.

Final words, read lots of books, eat your fruit and veg!