The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

You Can't Savor a Nutrient

The problems with a focus on nutrients are many.


I read a terrific book this past weekend - In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan. It was a one sitting, no skimming, sorry it was done kind of book. As the title conveys, the book is a defense of food, which sounds strange. But appreciate that food is something many love to hate and hate to love, at least in the United States.

The book had several purposes, and it succeeded at all of them. First, the book provides a fascinating history of how science, big business, and government led to a radical shift in public consciousness and consumption from a focus on food to a focus on nutrients - the things in food that presumably matter. Second, the book criticizes this shift, arguing that it could be justified if it made people healthier and happier. However, the evidence seems to point in the opposite direction. Third, the book offers some sensible advice about what and how to eat. In criticizing a nutrient-driven diet, Pollan does not advocate an anything goes approach. Just the contrary. He advocates a deliberate approach.

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I enjoyed the book not simply because of its content, but because it was wonderfully written. Consider these sentences, just a few of many that I underlined in appreciation:

"Culture .... at least when it comes to food ... is really just a fancy word for your mother" (p. 3).

"As a general rule it's a whole lot easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a raw potato or a carrot, with the perverse result that the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as a stroke victim" (p. 39).

"A diet based on quantity rather than quality has ushered a new creature onto the world stage: the human being who manages to be both overfed and undernourished" (p. 122).

"Don't eat anything your great-grandmother would not recognize as food" (p. 148).

"Among eighteen- to fifty-year-old Americans roughly a fifth of all eating now takes place in the car" (pp. 188-189).

The problems with a focus on nutrients are many. We are tempted to divide them into good nutrients and bad nutrients, and we think that the good ones are all that matter. We become concerned with what we eat but not how we eat it. Most generally, a focus on nutrients embodies inappropriate reductionism. The triumph of nutritionism (as Pollan calls it, to emphasize that it is an ideology) is one of taking nutrients out of the context of food, food out of the context of diet, and diet out of the context of lifestyle.

While I was reading the book, I worried that positive psychologists might also be guilty of inappropriate reductionism as we search for simple ingredients that make people happier. It is one thing to cite research showing that positive exchanges greatly outnumber negative exchanges in satisfying relationships. But it is another thing to conclude that only the positive to negative ratio matters, regardless of the relationship and the people involved. Then we are coming close to touting a positive psychology nutrient.

I read another book this past weekend that described a study done some years ago. Two researchers interested in teaching sat in on basketball practices led by legendary UCLA coach John Wooden. They wrote down every discrete "act of teaching" they observed. Of the many thousands of entries they made, only 6.9% were compliments - positive. And 6.6% were expressions of displeasure - negative. The positive-to-negative ratio was about even, hardly healthy according to current positive psychology. But John Wooden is arguably one of the world's greatest teachers and certainly one of the most beloved of coaches. We should not miss the forest for the trees, the food for the nutrients, or the beloved individual for the positive-to-negative ratio of what he says.

Pollan's advice is contained in the first three sentences of his book. "Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants."

To this advice I would like to add: "Eat with joy, and do so with others."

Bon appetit!

 

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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