“Nutritionism” and the calorie deception

I’m reading Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food for my nutrition class, and it reminded me of something I wanted to write about here.

The focus of the book is the evolution of the concept of nutritionism: the idea that it’s the nutrients in food that matter, more so than the type or source of the food itself. In other words, a food is only the sum of its parts. But as Pollan points out, all carbohydrates (or calories, or vitamins, or antioxidants) are not created equal.

Let’s get one thing clear: Being low in calories does not automatically qualify a food as healthy. The prevailing philosophy of nutritionism – backed by popular weight-management programs that teach us to count our calories above all else – has most of the general population believing that a calorie is the ultimate measurement of a food’s quality. That a cookie (which is what the product in question really was) is “healthy” if it contains a limited number of calories. That a 150-calorie snack is therefore a better choice than a 95-calorie apple topped with 130 calories of almond butter.

None of these assumptions is correct.  Whole foods – foods that are closest to their natural form – are always better for you. Live foods with phytochemicals (plant compounds) provide more than just the vitamins and antioxidants they contain. The concept of nutritionism ignores the context and the relationships between these compounds – something nutritional science, by its own admission, still doesn’t fully understand.

Nutritionism would have us believe that blueberries, for example, are no better than a blueberry-flavored bagel that has been fortified with vitamin C, vitamin K, and antioxidants. Think about that for a moment. Common sense tells us a blueberry and a bagel are in no way, shape, or form similar. Chances are, the bagel contains absolutely zero actual blueberries.

Consider for a moment that although scientists have identified beta-carotene as a cancer-fighting compound, beta-carotene supplements have actually been shown to increase the risk of cancer.

When it comes to calories, nutrients, and health claims on products, use your brain. Don’t buy the health claims of processed foods. If you want the benefits of blueberries, eat blueberries. If you want a healthy snack, eat a piece of fruit. And don’t buy into lie that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”



  1. I still think that a great rule of thumb is that if you don’t know what’s in it… don’t put it in your mouth! I’m reminded of when my kids would put something in their little mouths and I would tell them, “don’t put that in your mouth! It’s dirty!” Same concept. Putting stuff like monoskdfklgkjdaid into your body is just gross.

  2. Exactly … my rules are don’t eat any thing you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce! Also don’t eat anything that has more than 5 ingredients.

  3. Hi,

    My Names is Lee I live in Phoenix, AZ…I would like to get a holistic nutrition degree. Would you have a recommendation?

    Thank you

    1. Hi Lee,

      I got my certification through the American College of Healthcare Sciences, which is based in Portland but everything is done online. I chose them because I really liked the looks of the curriculum, and a lot of the books used in their classes were books I was reading already. Another well-known program is the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, but ACHS was considerably less expensive, which was another reason I went with them. Good luck!

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