Everyone ought to be concerned to some degree about their own nutrition. What that concern should consist of, however, is a matter of significant debate. When thinking of nutrition, what may naturally pop into your head are ideas about a wide array of scientific terms that you may not completely understand. Saturated fats, carbohydrates, trans fats, omega-3 fatty acids, dietary fiber – it’s likely you’ve heard these terms before and have some idea of whether these are things to seek out or to avoid.

The problem with this mindset is that it is concerned with nutrients rather than food. This is what has been dubbed ‘nutritionism’ – the belief that the most healthful diet can be defined by the right combination of nutrients whose effects are relatively well-understood and deemed important by the nutrition science community.

Unfortunately, nutritionism has proven itself to be a less than useful abstraction. Food cannot simply be viewed as a combination of nutrients, some good and some bad. Nonetheless, this paradigm has become incredibly prominent. As stated by Michael Pollan in his book, In Defense of Food,

“… the history of modern nutritionism has been a history of macronutrients at war: proteins against carbs; carbs against proteins, and then fats; fats against carbs… in each age nutritionism has organized most of its energies around an imperial nutrient” (30)

The power of nutritionism derives from the tempting yet unproven idea that we have the ability to truly understand what is and is not good for our bodies. Nutritional science certainly has made some significant progress towards this, but it faces some very significant roadblocks to full understanding. When your study of nutrition focuses on marginal effects of one macronutrient without taking into account the full complexity and context of the food itself, conclusions will be unavoidably incomplete.

Take the example of dietary fat. Fat is a macronutrient whose reputation is generally negative – a distinction owed to the practitioners of nutritionism. The ‘lipid hypothesis’ posed that dietary fat in our diets could be linked to a number of chronic diseases, heart disease chief among them. This mindset had a significant effect for a number of years, and created a concerted effort to promote low-fat and zero-cholesterol foods.

However, a recent review has drawn into question significant portions of this conventional wisdom, finding that the type of fats consumed matter far more than the total amounts. These findings, however, will do little to change the perception of the general public, who has been taught the nutritionist view of “fat is bad” for decades – a fact that is both unfortunate and potentially harmful to people’s diets.

We are constantly bombarded by the best new way to control your health and diet. Labels of “low-fat”, “reduces cholesterol”, “zero trans fats” and the like shout at us from the shelves of the supermarket, enticing shoppers to feel that they are making the best nutritional choices without offering any evidence or context.

What can we do to make good decisions about our nutrition in this environment? Mostly, you can do things that you already know are good for your health. Avoid processed and highly packaged food. Buy fresh fruits and vegetables and eat more whole grains (hint: these products won’t be shouting nutritional claims at you). Michael Pollan’s mantra is refreshingly simple: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. In the end, proper nutrition is much more complex than nutrition experts would like to admit, and much less complex than you are led to believe.