Nutrition was my first academic love. I studied it instead of biochemistry because it had a humanities and social science element. After all, if people won’t eat a particular food, they won’t benefit from its nutrients. However, I find myself incredibly reluctant to write about nutrition.
I don’t give nutrition advice. I am very out of date when it comes to the latest fad diets and one thing I learned in my years for studying and teaching nutrition is that one diet is much the same as any other. All diets require intake restriction and declaring that at least one food is bad and possibly some other foods are good. We need to stop moralizing about food. Food just is. Sometimes junk food is necessary and sometimes fruit just isn’t right for that moment.
A personal story thanks to my menstrual cycle. Every month there is one day when I have to have energy right NOW! When money was tight I would read the nutrition facts on candy bars to find out which gave me the most calories per cent. Nothing else would do except for the highest calorie source of sugar and fat. Suggesting otherwise at that moment might have been dangerous. Hangry hardly described my desperate need. I know my cycle well enough to know that it is only one day out of thirty and the rest of the time I am a fully committed to my vegetarian diet. Fortunately when I mostly eat what I want it involves lots of fruit and vegetables which is apparently healthy eating.
My degree taught me a lot about the science of nutrition, which is partly why I did my PhD in food chemistry, because the science of food is fun. And playing with food, while earning a degree, is even more fun. Except, in a moment of honesty, I must admit that my doctoral research wasn’t directly with food. I used model systems, a sort of simple replacement for food. They are easier to control and examine than food, which is very complicated as even the simplest orange juice contains a lot of stuff. This stuff ends up adding to the noise around an experiment, so it is easier to start simple and add stuff back in. So I spent three years mimicking orange juice to find out what happens to vitamin C during storage. This was still fun!
I guess I should stop avoiding writing about why I am avoiding writing about nutrition and return the theme of this article.
Why do I find nutrition difficult to write about?
As I asked myself this question, I realised that part of my issue is that nutrition has become a reductionist science, rather than the global science that I thought I was studying as an undergraduate. Nutrition has been pushed further into the realm of medicine which looks at the treatment of health issues rather than using a holistic approach that includes the whole body as well as the social and political environment we live in.
For example, we talk about healthy food choices without acknowledging that food access is a huge issue in many parts of the world, even in wealthy places like the US and Europe. Communities in both urban and rural areas have difficulty with accessing food, albeit for different reasons. Too many children under five globally are malnourished; either undernourished or overweight1.
Before we can suggest someone changes what they are eating, we need to change their ability to eat that new diet.
Another reason I find nutrition troubling today is the current obsession with body image and obesity. This is much worse than when I studied nutrition in the 1980s. There are many that blame those who are overweight for their body condition. This ignores so many issues that may cause someone to be overweight; including the aforementioned access. If the only food easily accessible is fast food and prepackaged meals, those are what you are going to select. It takes effort to seek out other foods and many of us do not have the time or energy to look for healthier options.
Another concern with body image is the idea of an ideal body which is based on unobtainable goals. Oh! I guess fashion models can obtain a size 2 body while being 6 foot tall, but at what cost to their health? Additionally many of us are genetically built with large chests and hips and fighting nature is not going to work. Can we redefine what we mean by health and wellness so that it is not dependent on having a slender body with a flat abdomen and hardily any curves?
Trauma and Obesity
Trauma is something I want to address in detail in a later article as recent research has shown that childhood trauma or generational trauma leads directly to adult obesity2. Additionally, research in world war 2 with conscientious objectors showed that enforced low calorie diets essentially lead to a lifetime of being obsessed with food and eating3. This is also true for people who diet to lose weight as well as people who lack access to food; the body’s response is the same however starvation occurs. The body is super efficient in times of starvation in extracting nutrients and calories from the little it receives. Initially, this physiological process switches off in times of plenty; however, this efficiency eventually stays on if starvation is prolonged or on-off-on like with yo-yo dieting. Essentially we adapt to a low calorie diet. This is just one form of trauma response; more in a later article.
Low Calorie Diets are Low in Nutrients
Low calorie diets are often low in nutrients too. Mostly because the quantity of food we can eat is less. If we eat 3000 Calories/day we have more choices as to where to find our vitamins and minerals and eating a 300 Calorie nutrient empty candy bar isn’t going to be too much of a problem when that is a tenth of our energy intake. However, on a low calorie diet, say 1500 Calories/day, that candy bar is now a fifth of our calorie intake and we have to make up the lack of nutrients with much less leeway.
Just to be clear, we tend to divide food into nutrient-dense food and calorie-dense food. I am NOT moralizing about either and some food is both. Especially something like an egg or meat or whole fat milk. Many processed foods are, unfortunately, high in fat, carbs, and low in vitamins and minerals as vitamins are destroyed or leached out with minerals during processing.
We only need tiny amounts of these micronutrients, tenths of a gram or less. For example, calcium, which is one of the minerals we need a lot of, has a recommended daily intake (RDI) of one gram. Vitamin C, which we need for wound healing and immune system strengthening, has a RDI for healthy adults of 75 mg/day. That is 0.075 g - a speck of vitamin C. Unfortunately. vitamin C is very unstable and so easily destroyed when food is processed.
Fortunately, some vitamins like vitamin C are easily added to food to enrich the food or to replace the loss of the vitamin during manufacturing. Others, like vitamin A and D must be added to food that has fat present as they are fat soluble and will only be absorbed with that fat. I’m not sure if fortifying or enriching our food is a long term answer to the lack of access to micronutrients.
I have similar concerns about vitamin and mineral supplements. While I do take supplements because I find that I feel both mentally and physically healthier when I do, I would rather get those from my diet.
Unfortunately this isn’t possible for many people around the world. For example, women and children suffer from iron deficiency, even in rich nations like the US and UK, about 12% of women lack sufficient iron in the US. This is partly due to losses caused by menstruation and also caused by a lack of iron in the diet. While bread and white flour are fortified with iron, this iron is not as well absorbed as heme iron from meat. Here I go again, a vegetarian recommending we eat meat!
So what can we do to benefit most from what we eat?
Eat for health
Don’t let eating and cooking become a chore. That is no way to live. Celebrate the gorgeous meals that you can get whether it is a fast food burger, a home-cooked gourmet meal, or just a snack of nuts and dried fruit.
If you are on a low calorie diet, rather than calorie count, switch to micronutrient counting. Look at the amount of iron, vitamin A, vitamin D etc. and make sure you are getting enough. Check the RDIs4 for micronutrients, assess what you are eating now and choose one micronutrient that might be a challenge for you. I did this for Vitamin A a few years ago. Adding carrots and sweet potatoes were a good way to get enough of that nutrient, and fitted well into my vegetarian diet.
Use the nutritional facts panel on the food package to guide you. The FDA has a guide to reading the label which I like.
Enjoy your food. Have fun. Celebrate.
Next week I have an article about how to judge whether nutrition information is reliable. There is a lot of junk science in the nutrition space, especially online.
Which might be yet another reason I find it hard to write about nutrition.
Let me know in the comments if you have any questions. While I won’t give nutrition advice; I am happy to share my knowledge around the science of food.
I write about the intersection of food science and food systems with an emphasis on food safety, food justice, and resilience. I am concerned that climate disasters and changing weather patterns are affecting our ability to eat healthy nutritious food.
I run a food safety consultancy, Food Safety Mid Atlantic, which I started in 2018 to support small and mid sized food businesses with food safety and product development. I support clients to develop a robust food safety program and to scale up their businesses while allowing them to maintain integrity with their values.
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https://data.unicef.org/topic/nutrition/malnutrition/ I read somewhere that 8,000 children under five die each day from undernutrition. I can’t confirm this. The numbers I did find from the UN are shocking: In 2020 more 149.2 million children under 5 were stunted, 45.4 million suffered from wasting, and 38.9 million were overweight.
https://www.obesityhelp.com/articles/obesity-and-trauma-when-the-body-cries-out/ This is a good general article.
https://nal.usda.gov/sites/default/files/fnic_uploads/RDA_AI_vitamins_elements.pdf I couldn’t find a better online source of this information, which is a bit frustrating.