I found the recent class topic on nutritionism especially telling about how humans respond to and deal with complex issues involving multiple factors. These issues may include things like health and hygiene, environmental sustainability, macroeconomic analysis, etc. Sometimes the path towards a viable solution to issues in these areas may be hindered by a habit to condense or even polarize the issues. When thinking about maintaining a healthy body, it’s hard to weigh and balance factors like diet, genetic predisposition, sleeping patterns, psychological responses to stress and pleasure, etc. And yet these are all macro-level products of even more complex interactions at the biochemical level. So it’s easy to understand how, given these complex issues, there would be a certain inclination to resort to simple answers and explanations.
One of the problems Gyorgy Scrinis highlighted in his article, “On the Ideology of Nutritionism”, that perfectly exemplifies this phenomenon was that of ‘second-order nutritional reductionism’ (p.41). Second-order nutritional reductionism is the focus on individual nutrients, and how they individually benefit the health of the human body. Of course this is complete nonsense, because all nutrients benefit the health of the human body by interacting with several other nutrients in complex biochemical reactions. Resorting to second-order nutritional reductionism would be like taking apart the human body, molecule by molecule, and then from scratch, deciding which parts are necessary for your survival.
The problems of nutritional health in today’s society aren’t new 21st century problems; in fact, the problems are caused by a larger systemic inadequacy of society that the public health community has been trying to confront for some time- a scientifically illiterate populace. I am not saying that science is the absolutely most important pillar of a society. I’m saying that science education is the necessary solution for the way our society responds to the problems it’s facing at present. The way food and weight-loss industries are taking advantage of the lure of second-order nutritional reductionism is reminiscent of the era of ‘snake oil medicine’ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in which noxious concoctions were being sold to the public with absolutely no ingredient labeling. Examples of these patent medicines include names like ‘Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root’ or ‘Dr. Moore’s Indian Root Pills’, which mostly contained substances like alcohol, laxatives, and in one occasion, organophosphates to rig chemical tests.
Of course it’s different for today’s nutritional health issues, in which the most of the ingredients in manufactured foods are far from poisonous. But it shows an exaggerated consumer confidence in the industries to know what’s right for them, to know that single nutrient or health myth that would serve as a panacea for all of their problems. What is necessary is to get consumers to make choices based on scientifically rational terms, to be familiar with the scientific and, especially, clinical terms relevant to their health, and to get them to understand how to rationalize issues on a scale involving multiple factors.