Whatever happened to the concept of a balanced diet?

Once upon a time, but not that long ago, very few Americans were overweight or obese. Moms stayed at home to prepare meals for their loving husbands and adoring children. Going to a restaurant to eat was only for a special treat limited to a few times a year. As a child of the 50s and 60s, I grew up in that age. The obesity epidemic did not really start until the late 70s. What has gone so terribly wrong?

chicken and squash

My Friday night supper: Indian-style curried chicken over rice with  squash casserole (accompanied by a glass of chianti)

The nutritional advice of the day was to eat a balanced diet to ensure consumption of enough protein, minerals, and vitamins. We were not so concerned about consuming specific nutrients. Rather we consumed foods from the four or seven or some other number of food groups. Our family never felt they needed vitamin pills although my dad put me on ironized yeast when I was in high school, primarily for the iron even though we ate lots of red meat. I had ready-to-eat breakfast cereal (my favorites were Sugar Pops and Sugar Smacks) in whole milk each morning when we did not have eggs or oatmeal with brown sugar. Most lunches and dinners consisted of a form of meat, potatoes, a vegetable (from our garden in the backyard in summer on into fall; home canned in the other seasons) and a dessert. The dessert might be a home-baked cake, fruit pie or canned fruit. Occasionally we had sandwiches such as those made from canned tuna (my favorite) and those from canned Spam (how gross!). We snacked on cookies when we got home, most of which were in the form of raw cookie dough. We walked more, played outside more, watched television less, and there was no such thing as the internet.

Nutritional advice today focuses on avoiding bad foods, particularly those high in sugar and salt. The jury is still out on fat. Most dietitians and nutritionists seem to be primarily  concerned about the extra calories associated with fat. They also differentiate fats that we should limit from those that are beneficial. Pundits seem to be divided on whether fatty foods are good or bad for us. Generally speaking, fast and processed foods are considered unhealthy and home cooked ones healthy. I question the common assumption that we are consuming that much less sugar and salt by preparing our meals at home. If sugar is as bad for us as some claim, my mother wasn’t doing me any favors by tempting me to eat sugar-coated cereal, pies, cakes and fruit cocktail! Most cooks have little concept as to what percent of the daily value of salt and sugar they are adding to our recipes

Some of the most well-respected food writers are warning against the evils of nutritionism. It has been defined as “a reductive approach to measuring diet quality and treats individual nutrients—for example fiber and cholesterol—as the main determinants of its healthfulness.”  The term was coined by Gyorgy Scrinis as described in his book Nutritionism and popularized by Michael Pollan, particularly within In Defense of Food. The term itself warns us against being overly attentive to the positive (protein, minerals and vitamins) and negative (sugar, salt and fat) aspects of specific foods, it is generally used to call into question all advice by nutritionists and dietitians. This concept then is used by food pundits to discredit all nutrition research that fails to support cherished assumptions about specific foods. Such an approach conveniently ignores scientific consensus. Thus, most of the principles of nutrition that I grew up learning from my mother the home economist, my father the food scientist, and my nutrition instructors in college are now disregarded. To characterize nutrition research as merely focused on individual nutrients is a gross oversimplification.


This new-found freedom from nutritionism and the science of nutrition allows pundits to embrace some parts of the new nutrition but not all. Each diet or approach must have a gimmick to distinguish it from others. We are introduced to superfoods, but to become a superfood it must have many nutrients and be low in sugar, fat and salt. Otherwise, how would we know it was a superfood? Animal products are suspect in most of these diets, but foods from plants are not. Again, how do we know their benefits and limitations if we can’t peak inside the food to see what positive and negative components that they have? It seems to me that opponents of nutritionism are just as hung up on fiber, protein, minerals, vitamins, fat, salt and sugar as nutritionists and dietitians.

It is my opinion that nutrition science is not really suspect for its practice of nutritionism. Rather, the advice given by nutritionists and dietitians is suspect because it is not clear-cut and can’t guarantee our health. Food pundits have come to the rescue with simple answers to complex questions. Many food pundits appear to be merchants of certainty. They provide us with miracle cures and fool-proof diets. They readily label diets as good or bad and foods as healthy or unhealthy. For example, all processed foods are considered unhealthy and all whole foods healthy. Then again, many foods fall through the cracks. Is an organic, canned tomato paste processed or whole? Is a dish prepared at home strictly from processed ingredients processed or homemade? Pundits don’t like troublemakers like me for posing such questions.

Our desire for certainty appears to be too great for the validity of the information available to us. Recently we have been surprised by unexpected election results and sudden changes in hurricane tracks. Is the problem with the predictions themselves or our unwillingness to accept the inherent degree of uncertainty in these forecasts? Scientists are by nature skeptics, but some scientists who have no trouble questioning others can become very sensitive when challenged by alternate opinions. For example, Food and Addiction is a book that starts stating that “The aim of this book is to draw together the work of leading experts to highlight what is known on a broad range of topics pertaining to food and addiction.” It ends up suggesting that anyone who questions the link between food and addiction is a shill for the food industry. Note that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the authority on what is and what is not addictive, does not consider food addiction to be an accepted clinical disorder.


Maybe it is time to stop viewing the 50s and 60s as idyllic times as it wasn’t as perfect as it is portrayed. Maybe it is also time to stop looking for the perfect diet that provides a magic bullet and return to the concept of a balanced diet. First, I suggest that we drop the idea of superfoods and go back to the concepts of portion control and limiting the calories we consume. Second, is it too much to ask to rely on animal products as a ready source of vitamins, minerals and protein, while we consume them in moderation? Next, plant products help fill us up and provide variety, but we need a diversity of plant sources to give us the all of the nutrients we need. As presented in last week’s post and an earlier one in May, plant-based diets are much more complex than just avoiding animal products. Finally, formulated products (Processed foods with more than five ingredients) can be part of a balanced diet when mixed with other items, but we need to read labels to limit the levels of salt and sugar in our diet.

Processed ingredients too

The thirteen processed ingredients and one processed beverage used to prepare my  balanced Friday supper.

Next week: My review of Grocery by Michael Ruhlman


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