Thursday, April 22, 2010

Americans like to quantify things. Even better, we love to rank order anything: 10 Worst Dressed, 25 Best Beaches, Fastest Ways to Lose 10 Lbs. Perhaps most of all, we want science to tell us what will make us healthy and happy, in simple, easy numbers. We don’t especially need to know what the numbers mean; we’re just reassured by their presence on a package. 6 grams of fiber! Do we know how many we need and how it helps?

I’ve been thinking recently about how often science must measure what it can. Sometimes that means measuring what our current technology or knowledge allows us to quantify, even if we don’t fully understand what the ultimate consequences are. Think of all the years when what we knew, or could , measure was total cholesterol, before we understood how differently HDL (the “good cholesterol”) functioned in our bodies from LDL (the “bad cholesterol”). Realizing that we are far from knowing everything about how our bodies work isn’t really the problem. Nor is the inevitable truth that we have to make choices based on that necessarily limited knowledge. It’s not, in other words, a problem with science itself. It’s how we treat the information. It’s a problem with how much we want to believe that this time, the article online or the package label can tell us the singular secret that will solve all of our problems.

Michael Pollan introduced us to Gyorgy Scrinis’ term “nutritionism” to describe our adoption of the ideology that nutrients are what matter, rather than food – the part rather than the whole. If you haven’t read his discussions of this phenomenon, you can find them in his book In Defense of Food or an earlier New York Times article. I think there are interesting implications to his ideas not just for how we choose to eat (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”), but also for how we think about the advice we get from media about health. More on that later…


  1. I think you hit the nail on the head with this one, Anne. I can't wait to hear what you have to say about the media in all of this. They can't shoulder all the blame, of course, but they sure do propagate the problem!

  2. Hi I'm Heather! Please email me when you get a chance, I have a question about your blog! LifesABanquet1(at)