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The Nutritionism Trap

If you’re anything like me, you’ve gone through a lot of phases with your eating habits.

There was the fruit phase, where for a whole summer, I loaded up on copious amounts of fresh fruit from the farmers’ market. (In hindsight, not the best idea.)

There was the low-fat phase, where I had been convinced by all the magazines that I just needed to cut out fat to get a bikini body and prevent every disease imaginable. (Who hasn’t tried that miserable diet?)

Then there was the oatmeal phase, where for a period of nearly 2 years, I had oatmeal practically everyday for breakfast.

You see, I had read an article about fiber and how Americans don’t consume enough of it. If we just ate enough fiber, people would have less digestive issues and they’d stay fuller for longer thereby preventing excess weight gain. I figured oats were my best bet for fiber. I certainly would never have to face heart disease in my lifetime (that makes me laugh now with all I know, but I really believed that was true for a while).

Now, looking back, I never felt particularly good eating oatmeal for breakfast. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the taste. And, being the health sleuth I am, I turned what could be a relatively simple process of nuking some pre-flavored instant oats in the microwave into the healthiest of rituals.

I would buy organic steel-cut oats, soak them overnight in water to make them more digestible (that part I later proved has merit), then I’d cook the oats in the morning to perfection. My steamy bowl of mush with a sprinkling of fresh fruit and nuts seemed like the epitome of health.

Only, I didn’t feel healthy.

Every morning by 10am, I’d be starving, unable to concentrate, and craving sugar – big time. It wasn’t until years later that I connected the dots and realized my “healthy” routine had been behind my insatiable mid-morning food cravings all along. (I now refer to this as the healthy breakfast mistake.)

Even as a highly observant, self-aware person, I had managed to turn off the inner cues my body was sending me to defend the nutritionism I had come to believe.

Nutritionism is the trap we fall into when we define the value of a food by a few select nutrients.

I had come to associate oatmeal with the glorified benefits of fiber, rather than considering the food as a whole.

Nutritionism is, in a large part, to blame for the current health crisis in the US (particularly the 50+ year deluded war against saturated fat).

You can make any food sound like a health superstar by highlighting the presence or absence of a single nutrient.

SnackWells? Those are better than the other cookies ‘cause they’re fat-free!

Cereal? How else will you get enough fiber? Or folic acid?

Juice? Drink up! You need your vitamin C! And fruit is healthy!

You can also make many healthy foods sound like dietary villains.

Steak? Way too high in saturated fat!

Eggs? Only without the yolks, lest you want your cholesterol to skyrocket!

Nuts? Those are ok, but you better measure them since they’re high in calories.

Olives? Too high in salt.

Truth is, we can justify eating or avoiding literally any food by applying nutritionism. And while that can be a useful application of nutritional science, it’s usually not used to help us choose one real food over another real food.

Instead, it’s used by food scientists to reverse engineer less healthy foods into ones that can be marketed towards us as having some health benefit.

Think super-sweetened yogurt spiked with omega-3s (that necessitate all sorts of chemicals to cover up the rancid, fishy taste).

Or cereal packed with protein (probably from GMO soy protein isolate).

And those sugar-laden fruit smoothies that are high in antioxidants (but contain more sugar than a can of soda).

So the next time you’re being lured to a product, ask yourself why.

Did the nutrient claims help justify a junk food purchase?

Is it because you’re really craving the flavor of product XYZ?

Nutrients aside, what makes you want to eat it?

Do you truly enjoy it?

Does your body feel good after eating it?

I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve worked with whose health problems are linked to the very foods they are religiously eating (or not eating).

Take, for example, the client who ate an apple for lunch nearly every day for more than 10 years because she thought it was healthy. Her gastric pain and diarrhea so severe that she often had to miss work. Food sensitivity testing revealed apples were highly reactive, and eliminating them was a key part of overcoming her digestive issues.

Or the client who avoided fat in an effort to lose weight, only she’d gained 25 pounds eating that way and relied on low-fat alternatives that happen to be highly processed foods.

Or the woman with gestational diabetes who was told to eat more fiber, but was consuming it from high-carbohydrate crackers and dried fruit bars, which left her with very high blood sugar numbers.

The effect of food on our body cannot be fully explained by a single nutrient, so my challenge to you is to stop making food choices driven by them.

Here’s how to get out of the nutritionism trap:

Start asking questions about your food choices. Not from a place of judgement, but as an opportunity to be introspective.

What’s the one supposedly “healthy” food that you dread eating, but do so purely because you believe it’s healthy? I want you to pay close attention to why you choose to eat it and how your body feels after eating it. Be open to the idea that not all “healthy” foods are healthy for you.

Step away from the numbers, the health claims, and the dogma for a change and just tune in to what your body tells you.

No, I’m not suggested you give up all your healthy habits, but just to question them, check in with yourself, and re-evaluate the why. If you’re eating mostly real food, and particularly ones without health claims, you won’t be led astray.

If this post has inspired you to take a new look at what you’re eating and why, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below. 

Until next week,


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Lily Nichols is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist, Certified Diabetes Educator, researcher, and author with a passion for evidence-based prenatal nutrition and exercise. Her work is known for being research-focused, thorough, and unapologetically critical of outdated dietary guidelines. She is the author of two bestselling books, Real Food for Pregnancy and Real Food for Gestational Diabetes.


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  1. Being a dietitian myself, and having taken a similar path as you to define my formula for nutrition quality and overall health, I just wanted to let you know I thought this post was great! I always encourage my client to think of “food as medicine” and remind them that just because one “pill” works for your friend, it doesn’t mean that same “pill” will work for you. Everyone needs to listen to their body and then determine the best diet for his or her own biochemistry. Well written!!

    • Stacey, thanks so much for offering your support! I’ve certainly found that one person’s food can be another person’s poison. It’s great to connect with like-minded professionals.

  2. I’ve tried it all, too, Lily. You can track my progression by looking at the lineup of diet books on my bookshelf. I have tried intuitive eating and while it sounds great, I feel like I’ve gotten too far removed from what my body actually is saying … surely it is not saying “eat cookie dough,” but I swear that’s what I hear. Tips for reconnecting to the “true” intuition would be great!

    • That’s a great point, Beth. Intuitive eating, also commonly referred to as mindful eating, is something that evolves over time. For many people, allowing “treats” and truly taking the time to enjoy them results in them eating fewer of ’em (as opposed to mindlessly binging on them and then feeling guilty, etc). I’ll make a note to delve into that topic in a future post.

  3. Great topic to bring attention too. Just because a food is marketed as healthy or believed to be unhealthy doesn’t make it so. Also going on outrageous hard to follow diets is not the best way to build a healthy body. I’m so happy you are sharing this information.

    • I agree wholeheartedly, Krystal!

  4. Sorry for the dumb question, but can you let us know why oats or oatmeal aren’t good for breakfast? I have them wither soaked Bircher style with chia, raspberries, nuts + seeds or warm, much like you describe above & feel pretty good eating this but maybe its not good for me after all? Genuinely confused what is and isn’t good to have for breakfast 🙁

    • That’s a great question, Olivia! Certainly how you are consuming oatmeal is the healthiest possible. However, myself and many of my clients don’t do well with it and I cover why in this post.

      • Thank you SO much! You explain it so clearly and make it easy to understand. Going to give eggs a try and also some of the other suggestions.

        Laughing at the Roald Dahl joke 🙂

        Thanks again, really appreciate it.

        • So good to hear my explanation made sense. Let me know how this breakfast experiment goes. 🙂

  5. I have a similiar story, so it is really nice to hear it from someone else.

  6. This is such an important reminder and loved hearing all the detailed why’s and examples behind it. It’s so true how easy it is to get sucked into those added nutrients in processed food and use it as an excuse to eat something that you know isn’t actually great.

  7. Yup, been there! I was thinking about this yesterday, actually, as I used lineseed oil (good for the omega 3!). Thanks for the reminder!

  8. I love this: Nutritionism is the trap we fall into when we define the value of a food by a few select nutrients. SO true. When we start to fear a food for 1 reason….it’s a waste of time. Finding balance and realizing that food is not evil is a good goal to reach. Thanks for sharing your insights! We definitely need to feel good after we eat and not guilty, bloated, pained, or frustrated.

  9. Well,
    I’d probably prefer eggs and sausage, but I don’t like to cook much in the morning. Just coffee, food, and I’m off. I agree that a bowl of plain oatmeal will leave one hungry in a couple of hours, but a bowl of oatmeal, perhaps cooked with other whole grain cereals, and then fortified with a spoonful or two of good peanut or almond butter, and nuts and dried fruit, and yogurt, keeps me going well into the afternoon.

  10. Honestly, the “healthy” food that I dread eating the most is greens. I hate them. I’ve tried and tried and tried to like them. But I hate them. I hate most veggies. I’m not really sure what my body’s response is to them. I just hate them. I’m a good cook. I’ve tried TONS of recipes. But I still hate them. I like carrots, brussels sprouts, peas, sweet potatoes, avocado, broccoli, and mixed baby lettuces. I can handle small and infrequent amounts of green beans, tomatoes, cauliflower, and hard winter squash. But that’s about it. I have such a hard time eating them. But I force myself to because they are really good for you and help you maintain a healthy weight and give you fiber and keep you full and don’t spike your blood sugar. Yet I still have to gag them down.

    The other “healthy” food that I have a hard time with is protein. Any kind of protein. I can handle about one serving a day and then I’m done. I’m not a fan of eggs ever. I don’t like deli meats (and I even buy the nitrate/nitrite free ones). I can handle chicken, steak, lean ground beef, nuts, or beans on occasion. But to eat some form of protein with every meal makes me want to scream. I can only maintain that for a day or two before I want to throw away all the protein in the house. I’m not a vegetarian; I’ve got nothing against meat. I just don’t like eating a lot of it. And yet it’s one of the biggest factors in maintaining healthy blood sugar. But I tend to feel super hungry after I’ve eaten something that is protein heavy. I HAVE to pair protein with starchy carbs or I’m starving in 10 minutes. It feels like I didn’t eat anything at all.

  11. Nice post Lily. I think you’re a little too hard on oatmeal, though. I add peanut butter to mine and don’t get hungry before lunch.

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