Food – Not Nutrients – Is The Fundamental Unit In Nutrition

The title of a 2007 article in the journal Nutrition Reviews says it all: Food, Not Nutrients, Is The Fundamental Unit In Nutrition.

We need to shift our focus away from “nutrients” and towards “food” in order to understand the effects nutrition has on health. Why? Because whole foods are so much more complex than nutritional science can understand.

Focusing too narrowly on nutrients has obscured the true value of eating Real Food.

And, as Michael Pollan argued in his latest book, In Defense of Food, nutritionism (the reductive way we’re tempted to think about food in terms of nutrients) is a boon to Industrialized Food:

“No idea could be more sympathetic to manufacturers of processed foods, which surely explains why they have been so happy to jump on the nutritionism bandwagon.  Indeed, nutritionism supplies the ultimate justification for processing food by implying that with a judicious application of food science, fake foods can be made even more nutritious than the real thing.”

In the opening chapter of her newest book (Real Food For Mother And Baby), Nina Planck makes a similar point:

“Nutritionism has been good for the food companies and supplement sellers ready to profit from government-approved health claims. Orange juice with added calcium and chocolate with added probiotics would not exist if not for the nearly universal acceptance of nutritionism. But it has not been noticeably good for our health….

She then takes it a step further, to show just how ridiculous nutritionism can be when we jump on that bandwagon.

“However, you don’t have to count calories, grams of saturated fat, milligrams of vitamin E, micrograms of folic acid, or jillibeters of anything else. I never do. It would be downright wacky to create shopping lists of nutrients. (“Sweetheart, I’m pregnant! Don’t forget complex carbohydrates, lauric acid, and betanine.”) As a nutrition geek, I have a basic understanding of the major nutrients and a few minor ones, but I am still firmly in favor of the tangible material formerly known as food. In our house we call it real food. It’s good for you. It’s good for babies. It’s good for everybody.”

Why should we focus on whole foods as they’ve traditionally been eaten? Because if the scientific study of nutrition has taught us anything, it’s that whole, real foods have a complex relationship of nutrients both within themselves (a carrot is more than beta-carotene, a tomato more than lycopene) and with the other foods we serve them with. Nina makes this point in Chapter Two — The Fertility Diet:

“Another reason to eat whole foods is that many nutrients work together. Sperm health improves dramatically when vitamins A and E are eaten together, probably because E prevents oxidation of A. You need vitamin C to absorb iron, and saturated fats extend the use of omega-3 fats. There are countless relationships like this in nutrition. There is no need to remember them. Just eat whole foods in their natural state and in classic combinations, such as leaves with olive oil, or fish with butter, and you’ll get everything you need.

I couldn’t agree more. Even though I study nutrition and am forced to speak about the wonders of certain foods in terms of nutrients, I don’t want any of you to get the wrong idea.

Although I’m glad that nutritional science can help me understand exactly why coconut oil is a great fat, or why grass-fed beef is a healthy food choice, that’s not why I eat these foods.

I eat these foods because they’re Real Food. They taste great. I loved how Nina Planck defined Real Food for us in yesterday’s interview:

It’s old and it’s traditional.”

So simple, really! This is food that your great grandmother would have recognized as food. This is food that has been eaten or prepared this way for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

This post was inspired, in part, by a recent post of Rob Smart’s called Experiencing Food v. Thinking Nutrients.

This post is also part of Kelly The Kitchen Kop’s Real Food Wednesday carnival. For other interesting articles, anecdotes, and stories on Real Food, go check it out!

(photo by femenistjulie)


    • says

      I understand the argument on not focusing on nutrients because then the food “manufacturers” can claim that there “food” has the same nutrients as REAL food.

      However, you MUST focus on GROWING nutrients IN your food. All veggies are NOT created equal. Numerous studies have proven that the AVERAGE nutrient content of food today as MUCH less than it was 50+ years ago. This is true even among ORGANIC produce.

      You have to work to get your soil in shape, supply adequate organic matter, nurture the soil microbes but above all you MUST get the mineral content of the soil balanced. Nutrients in the produce we grow is directly related to the quantity, diversity and quality of the minerals in the soil. This is especially true concerning the trace mineral content of the soil.

      So don’t forget about the nutrients in your produce. That’s why you eat veggies isn’t it? To feed your body what it needs?

      Michael LaBelle
      Mighty Grow Organics

  1. says

    Here’s to Real Food, Michael Pollan, Nina Planck, and, of course, Food Renegade!

    Now all we have to do is get our 300+ million fellow US citizens to understand just how simple eating can be. Better yet, let’s get them to find their way back to their kitchens, where they can cook together, and put sustainable food on every kitchen table!

    That’s what makes getting up in the morning so worthwhile.


    Rob Smart

    Rob Smart

  2. says

    Jumping up and down cheering. You are so exactly right, and so exactly why “diets” don’t work. Our bodies and tastebuds are programmed to like certain foods, especially in certain combinations. Striking out entire food groups from our lives makes me hungry, gives me food cravings, and makes me grouchy!

    I’ve been happier with a better outlook on life since I started eating traditionally. Before this journey, I counted calories, fiber, fat grams, carbs, exchanges, even IUs and grams of vitamins and minerals. It was frustrating, imperfect and yielded a diet that just didn’t nourish my body.

    For the first time that I can remember, I love feeling hungry. It’s not a punishment anymore to see how little I can eat and stay alive. It’s a glorious opportunity to eat something delicious, satisfying and healthy!

    Local Nourishment

  3. says

    I recently took a friend who’s very wary of the “real food” conversation to one of my favorite dinner spots. He liked it so much that he took his family and neighbors there for dinner the next week. “I didn’t take them because the food is local or sustainable,” he insisted, “I took them because it tastes fantastic.” Exactly.

    Great post and site,


  4. says

    Rob — Yes! That was one thing I loved in Nina’s interview yesterday. She made it VERY clear that eating Real Food IS simple. Many times it can be even more simple than preparing convenience foods!

    Local Nourishment — I agree with Kelly. You’re last paragraph does say it all!

    Lee — Thanks for joining in the conversation! I hope you’ll consider posting again this Fight Back Friday. I thought last week’s entries were all so inspiring and informative.

  5. Kyle says

    This article is so helpful because I was having this argument with a friend over facebook, and he was arguing how you could get all your nutrients from a vegetarian diet. And he argued that you could supplement those that you didn’t get.

    It was annoying, but a fun :)

  6. says

    The greatest chefs (celeb and non celeb) seek out the freshest ingredients possible….wonder why that is???? Casuse is tastes good people!!!!
    “Lycopene Foam” is just not where it’s at.


    Marc Feel Good Eating

  7. says

    Kyle — That’s a pretty familiar story, and a sadly uninformed one. There are some plant-based equivalents of animal nutrients, but our bodies can’t properly assimilate those nutrients without animal fats. In the very least, vegetarians need to make sure they add eggs, raw dairy, and grass-fed butter back into their lives. As for a totally vegan diet — well, there’s a reason NOT ONE long-lasting society has been vegan. We need animals, like it or not.

    Marc — Ick. Lycopene foam sounds like something I’d rather not think about. ;p

  8. Flossie says

    I love your articles but I don’t like sharing them on facebook when a big ad for amazon is the first thing my post shows. I like your picture and your article. How can I share your valuable information without advertizing for Amazon?

    • says

      When the link preview shows up, you can use the arrow buttons on the preview picture to scroll through about three photo options. Use those to select the photo you want before you publish the link.

      Alternatively, if you published a comment before a link preview loaded, you can always click “remove preview” under the comment so that it’s just the link with no photo.

      Hope that helps!

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