A beautifully-written summary by Emily Contois regarding the recent Critical Nutrition Symposium held at UC-Santa Cruz. Organized by Julie Guthman, author of Weighing In, this symposium brought together food scholars from around the country (plus me) and invited us and the audience to participate in a thought-provoking and nuanced conversation about food, nutrition, culture, and ways of knowing.

Emily Contois

On March 8, 2013, I had the pleasure of attending the Critical Nutrition Symposium at UC Santa Cruz, organized by Julie Guthman, author of Weighing In. The event was spawned from a roundtable discussion at last year’s Association for the Study of Food and Society conference. The symposium brought together an interdisciplinary group of scholars to critically examine what is missing from conventional nutrition science research and practice, discuss why it matters, and brainstorm how to move forward in an informed and balanced way. What follows are a few of my favorite key ideas from the day’s discussions.

Adele Hite, a registered dietitian and public health advocate who is not afraid to ask big and delightfully confrontational questions regarding nutrition science, began the day by dissecting Michael Pollan’s now famous aphorism—Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Step by step, she revealed the decades of revisionist myth…

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6 thoughts on “

  1. Hi Adele, how was the reception to your talk attacking Pollan? How does he get away with pushing such an unbalanced diet?

    1. Weirdly enough, it was received very well. I’ve spoken in front of unfriendly crowds before (try 30 9th grade boys in remedial English right after lunch), but I have never been as nervous as I was at that event. But these are folks coming at the subject from a critical science perspective; it is sort of their job to peel away the layers of ossified thinking and see what really lies beneath some of our conventional assumptions about nutrition. I think the story of the 1977 Goals was compelling & the unexpected outcome of such a short-sighted policy move was even more so.

      I’m not sure how MP gets away with being so unscientific on the one hand and so freakin’ condescending on the other . He rails about “nutritionism” then uses nutritional arguments (meat is bad for your health) to support his vapid generalizations. He picks apart a study that concluded that a low-fat diet has no health benefits by complaining that it focused on fat rather than food–then goes on to complain that it doesn’t break consumption patterns down into TYPES of fat. That’s just ludicrous thinking. He suggests that the reason his simple advice is not the “final word” in nutrition is because it’s boring & not marketable. He fails to consider that perhaps it’s not the final word because it’s just wrong. (And judging from the MP publication spin-offs, it is surely marketable, just not to food companies.)

      But I think he’s popular because he allows his readers to feel superior to the “unhealthy other” average American eater–the ones he suggests went out and “celebrated” the news that a low-fat does does not cut health risks by eating a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, the ones that eat more food just because it is cheap (a statement which offends me on so many levels, I can’t even breathe when I think about it too hard).

      If you all twist my arm, I’ll post my presentation ;p

      1. Thanks so much for your real thoughts on Pollan. You are an alternative nutrition warrior. I’m surprised the AND isn’t all over you for being such a rebel.

        I figured it might be a hostile crowd, as why I asked. Glad to see there’s some room for open thought.

        MP and the whole vegatarian (I really like your term) movement is so arrogant and condescending, agreed. After more than a decade and a half of unlearning conventional nutrition and finding my own path to healthy eating, it still pisses me off that the message of the nutritional establishment is not just wrong, but so completely oppositely wrong on three critical points: low fat, low cholesterol, and low calorie.

        Who was it that said, “I’m a vegetarian not because I love animals, but because I hate plants”?

        I’ve heard of Charlotte Biltekoff and Jessica Mudry. I’ve wanted to read Mudry’s book about calories as it fits into my research on the origins of calorie counting.

        Would love to see your presentation in any form. Can you feel me twisting your arm? 🙂

        PS: Poked around on Emily Contois website. I wanted to like her, but then she went off in this post, http://emilycontois.com/2012/07/14/the-language-of-low-carb-digging-into-the-atkins-and-south-beach-diets/, about how Atkins is an “eating disorder” akin to bulimia. Really. Sheesh.

        1. “I’m a vegetarian not because I love animals, but because I hate plants”? I used to say that–when I was a vegetarian–but probably plenty of other folks too.

          Jessica Mudry’s book is excellent, but you have to cut her some slack–Emily too–for not knowing what we know (a couple of times, Jessica mentions the “sound scientific advice” that we give the public–I try not to cringe too much). I really try to assume that people learn and grow and change their minds or perspectives on things–certainly that’s what happens to me. I only get really annoyed when I know that people have been exposed to a new perspective, but they dismiss it out of hand, without giving it any serious thought or seeing if it better explains how the world works. I think you would like Emily if you met her–she’s very smart and open-minded.

          I think she actually makes some good points about Atkins’ style–of course, similar styles are found in many low-fat diet books as well, or for that matter, the Dietary Guidelines. When our Dietary Guidelines essentially come out and say, “Americans are lying about how much they eat,” it seems like the whole nation is headed toward an eating disorder.

          I’ll send you my presentation. It’ll take some work to trim it down to bloggable form.

  2. That symposium sounds SO exciting! My brain is on fire with all the perspectives presented. Finally, viewing food beyond just the simple mechanics and physics! (which aren’t all that simple, are they?). Isn’t it kind of weird that something so basic, so essential and elemental as nutrition has been examined only in very narrow ways?

    1. It was pretty freakin exciting to be there. I’m hoping that this is just the beginning of something that will snowball, because you are right: food and nutrition are central to our lives & yet the only “official” way we have of talking about food has to do mostly with calories and disease prevention, and to a much lesser extent, actual essential nutrition, and to an almost zero extent with culture, taste, connections, enjoyment, and empowerment. I don’t think we are going to be able to unravel our current health crisis in the US without taking a much broader perspective on food and its place in our lives and our health. My brain was buzzing after the conference too!

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