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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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