Nutritionism and baby formula

Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Ruth Uchida, left and Haruko Nagahiro, m . . . - NARA - 539478I’m listening to the audiobook of In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan.  I’m on Chapter 1, and I’m already blown away – he’s such a great writer, and his message is so applicable to my life.  One thing that struck me as he began discussing nutritionism (the ideology that food is significant only for its nutrients, and how they promote health) was that the approach was perfectly illustrated by the history of baby formula – we figured out protein, fat, and carbohydrate, and got really excited and obsessed about analyzing foods for those building blocks, and assumed we had it all figured out.  Feed babies a liquid with the same amounts of macronutrients as found in human milk, and babies would thrive even without mother’s milk.  Only we started finding new constituents of breast milk that we’d missed originally, and we saw the babies using the formula develop health problems.  And this continues up to this day!

Well, shut my mouth if Pollan didn’t quickly come to the baby formula issue, saying exactly what I had been thinking.  “The entire history of baby formula has been the history of one overlooked nutrient after another…and still to this day babies fed on the most ‘nutritionally complete’ formula fail to do as well as babies fed human milk.  Even more than margarine, formula stands as the ultimate test product of nutritionism and a fair index of its hubris.”

Maybe what we need to do is stop blaming individual mothers for “choosing” formula (often moms don’t really have viable options), and acknowledge that our whole culture around eating is seriously messed up.  Science is great – you guys know I love science!  But we do tend to get overly enamored of its fruits sometimes.  America especially strikes me as besotted with technology, even when actual science shows us that the technology produces poor outcomes.  We like gadgets, we like control, and we like improving on things.  And we’ve become so used to this approach that we have trouble seeing when we should chuck it.  Margarine turns out to be more evil than butter?  The answer is to take out the trans fats . . . and add fiber to it . . . and also add probiotics.  Never mind eschewing processed food and eating whole foods like our ancestors did.  Baby formula isn’t close enough to breastmilk to protect babies’ health?  The answer must be to add DHA to it . . . and probiotics!  Never mind changing our work life to allow moms to actually feed their babies breastmilk, or making sure pediatricians have extensive knowledge of breastfeeding support.

It’s heavy stuff to ponder – I feel a bit panicky at the prospect of abandoning my nutrient-focused, “food for health” perspective and maybe just eating like people did before Kellogg’s (and Nestle, of course).  But maybe I can do it, if I learned to trust my body to feed my babies properly, and changed my personal culture to ditch nutritionism and trust appetite.

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About Christine

I'm a full-time mother to two kids, an ex-lawyer, a breastfeeding counselor, a skeptic, and (to steal a phase from Penn & Teller) a "science cheerleader." You can reach me through my Facebook page.

Posted on February 24, 2012, in Breastfeeding, Culture, Natural Family Living and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I think Pollan’s point about “nutritionism” is an excellent one, and this is coming from a woman who spent years of her life studying individual nutrients in order to get a PhD in nutrition (and people are always amazed when I tell them that I didn’t really learn how to EAT better in grad school!). For myself, I have really moved my thinking more towards eating whole foods and a diverse diet and trusting that that is healthier than fretting over nutrient labels or supplements. And for my daughter, now 15-months, I’m confident that breast milk is a big part of her nutrition still and that the most important thing about nutrition I can teach her is to love whole foods.

    All of that being said, I think attention to individual nutrients is really important. Iron deficiency is a huge problem in babies and toddlers around the world, and I think most of us don’t feed our babies enough iron in whole foods, so I think iron-fortified baby cereal is a good thing. I think that baby formula design is probably one of the most important examples of why an understanding of individual nutrients is important. Yes, it has taken a lot of time and unfortunately, experimentation (because how else are you going to do it?) to sort this out, and it is still far from perfect. Despite all the efforts of the best nutritionists, formula will never be quite as good as breast milk because of the biological factors and individual variation present in breast milk. Still, it is a darn good substitute, and goodness knows we need it. The other example that comes to mind is TPN (total parental nutrition – nutrients given through an IV to people who no longer have the capacity to digest food). The development of TPN was really important to our understanding of nutrient requirements, and we now have formulas that are very complete. My grandmother survived on TPN and an occasional piece of toast and butter for 5 years. You could argue that we shouldn’t keep people alive who can’t digest their own food, but my grandmother was loving life until the end, and many others need TPN on a temporary basis, such as when recovering from an operation. Just a shout-out for nutrition science:)

  2. Check out “Real Food” by Nina Planck, it’s along the same lines as Pollan’s, but she talks more specifically about what to eat. She’s a fan of the Weston Price Institute, which advocates traditional foods (soaked grains, raw milk, organ meats, etc). Another writer to check out is Gary Taubes, who argues crabs and sugar are way worse for people than fat. There are a ton of interesting food books out there, and they’ve definitely changed how I eat and what I feed my kids.

  3. I read that book just as my youngest was a toddler (meal times were a fiasco) and I was struggling to lose weight after 2 babies in 2 years, a husband working 7 day work weeks (and never home for dinner), and battling depression. It changed my life. Literally. It confirmed a lot of the things I had “heard” but never thought much about whether or not it had merit. I made small changes at first, preparing meals then sitting down at the set dining table with my two boys to eat (toddler almost instantly became a fantastic eater), and taking time to really enjoy food. We were on a shoestring budget, so a complete diet overhaul wasn’t really viable, but I made small steps to cut out obviously processed foods, especially targeting HFCS. We have made other gradual changes over time with our food purchases (whole grains, avoiding mono- and di-glycerides) and are now flexitarian and the only substantial dairy we intake is cheese. Our budget is still limiting, but I buy organic when it is prudent and available. I don’t comparison shop based on grams or percentages of RDA, I look at the ingredients list, and can quickly assess which is more wholesome.

    My children (now almost 4 &6) are wonderful little eaters and appreciate wholesome foods and understand how whole foods help their bodies so they can do the things they love. LIke They understand which foods are not “growing foods” and are tasty to have once in a while, but not healthy for their bodies. My childless friends are amazed when they invite us over for dinner and my boys will eat a mahi filet, cous cous, and spinach salad. They’ve stopped buying chicken nuggets “just in case” the kids don’t like dinner.

    I have never been a good “dieter” and set myself up to fail practically from the start when I’ve tried. But with the way I approached this, it wasn’t a “you can’t eat ANYTHING that is/has x,y,z or only eat a,b,c” it was a practice in being mindful and aware of what I was putting in my body overall. It gave me leeway and was amazingly liberating. In the first two months after I started making changes, **I lost 15 lbs. on those changes alone.** Since then, I am hovering in the 20-25 lb range of total weight loss. My depression has improved noticeably, and I just feel better overall. I still let myself indulge in my “guilty pleasures” and don’t stress about the kids eating corn dogs and sugary snacks at grandma’s house with slightly less guilt because I know that in the scheme of things, the amount of wholesome, unprocessed foods that go into our bodies is significantly less than that of the average American family. I know that I am setting myself and my young family up for a good start in simple, lifelong habits that will do nothing but serve us well in this increasingly toxic world.

    You say “I feel a bit panicky at the prospect of abandoning my nutrient-focused, “food for health” perspective” but once you start taking baby steps to change that perspective, it does nothing but make you want to run with it. I promise :]

  4. “Margarine turns out to be more evil than butter? The answer is to take out the trans fats . . . and add fiber to it . . . and also add probiotics. Never mind eschewing processed food and eating whole foods like our ancestors did. Baby formula isn’t close enough to breastmilk to protect babies’ health? The answer must be to add DHA to it . . . and probiotics! Never mind changing our work life to allow moms to actually feed their babies breastmilk, or making sure pediatricians have extensive knowledge of breastfeeding support.”

    I’m kinda late to the party, but I don’t see either of these options as mutually exclusive. Why can’t we keep on developing formula so it’s as close to breastmilk as humanly possible AND push for more mother-friendly workplace policies and more evidence-based pediatrician education? Why can’t we improve the nutritional value of ‘unhealthy’ foods AND educate the public about the importance of good nutrition and moderation in all foods? That way, people still have the ability to choose, but between two (relatively) healthier options…even those who have to use formula or fast food on a regular basis.

  5. I am getting over the panic, and enjoying eating whole foods. It’s pretty easy, too – I don’t feel deprived anymore, and I’m automatically eating tons more produce, which is great!

    As for improving processed foods and/or baby formula, you’re completely right, Esther. I guess my point is that we also have to back off the “NOW we’ve got it all figured out” mentality that simply assumes we have analyzed a naturally occurring substance sufficiently to reproduce all its effects with a processed alternative. We need to remember that we’re approximating, not automatically improving, foods with processed alternatives.

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