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Food is more than a macronutrient

When you sit down to a meal, do you see food or macronutrients? 

That's the question Alison Neboski asks in a special guest post this week.  Combining her degree in psychology with her passion for health and nutrition, Alison looks beyond the trends in search of real strategies to simplify healthy living for a happier life. 

Here's Alison...

Let's say you sit down to a meal of grilled vegetables, rice, and a piece of chicken drizzled with olive oil and lemon. Do you see a variety of food or start calculating the percentages of proteins, carbs, and fats—even before taking a bite? 

For many Americans, the focus of healthy eating has shifted from variety, balance, and pleasure to mathematics, regimen, and precision. As our interest in nutrition has increased in recent years, particularly in the US, our perspective of food has changed dramatically.  

With good intentions to live a healthy life, you no doubt have a lengthy list of goals from building muscle, improving athletic performance, increasing energy, and preventing chronic diseases. The overwhelming amount of nutrition information available has likely altered your perspective on the very familiar question of “what should I eat?”

You may already know that protein, carbohydrate, and fat are the three macronutrients found in foods, which provide energy in the form of calories. The 2015-2021 Dietary Guidelines recommend that adults eat 10 to 25 percent of calories from protein, 45 to 65 percent from carbohydrates, and 20 to 35 percent from fat.  Each macronutrient has specific roles and functions that help our bodies to work efficiently, utilize nutrients, and generate energy and satiety.  Many research studies have highlighted the link between macronutrients and health outcomes, so by now, you probably know proteins’ function in repairing and building muscle.  We understand the ideal percentage of macronutrients, their role in the body and how they contribute to health, yet in our quest to find the perfect balance of nutrients for health, we may have lost sight of our food.

Food Is More Instagram.jpg


The singling out of macronutrients views food as parts rather than meals, and the dissecting our food into macro- and micronutrients may be missing the bigger picture of how and why we eat. Observing food through such a narrow lens runs the risk of reinforcing—and even promoting—the disordered eating patterns of dieting, which we see reflected in the low fat, low carbohydrate, and high protein diet trends flooding the marketplace. 

An article in Time touched upon the subject of a nutrient-versus-food focus a few years back. While the article targeted micronutrients, like vitamin C found in oranges, the takeaway applies to all nutrients. The report highlighted a study from The Journal of Health Psychology examining the perception of foods (whole-food centrism) or nutrients (nutrient-centrism) in the relationship between health and diet-related diseases. According to the study, people thought that eating specific nutrients were better for health and preventing disease than eating the foods that contained those nutrients.  You can see the results in this graph listed below. 

Adapted from data source:  Schuldt JP, Pearson AR. Nutrient-centrism and perceived risk of chronic disease. J Health Psychol. 2015 Jun;20(6):899-906.

Adapted from data source: Schuldt JP, Pearson AR. Nutrient-centrism and perceived risk of chronic disease. J Health Psychol. 2015 Jun;20(6):899-906.

The authors explain the unusual phenomenon in this witty, yet delicate, assessment of the results: 

`Healthy´ nutrients may paradoxically be deemed more disease-preventive than the `healthy´ whole foods that contain them, despite the fact that people must eat food (not isolated nutrients) to survive and thrive.

These results may also have important implications for public health. To the extent that people privilege nutrients in isolation over the whole foods that contain them, even well-intentioned efforts to incorporate healthier dietary choices into one’s diet may backfire in a contemporary food environment where `healthy´ nutrient claims adorn boxes of Frosted Flakes but not fennel.
— Schuldt JP, Pearson AR. Nutrient-centrism and perceived risk of chronic disease. J Health Psychol. 2015 Jun;20(6):899-906.


So why might a nutrient-based focus be a problem? This narrow telescopic view focused on the small detail disregards how all the other details contribute to the big picture. For example, prioritizing protein neglects the fact that carbohydrates provide energy, and that fats help protein carry out their functions. Meals combine foods with macronutrients and micronutrients, all of which work together to contribute to our health. Food is no longer viewed as food, yet instead thought about, spoken about and written about as its most prominent macronutrient.

This perspective is unique compared to other cultures, especially that of the Mediterranean. Even when eating Mediterranean-style meals here in the U.S., our thoughts and approach to preparing and eating that meal differ.  We diet and dissect our foods into nutrients, whereas Mediterraneans share a mindset of enjoyment, availability, and balance when eating.

While it's beneficial to be aware of what is in our food, we do not need to dissect it to the point of parts. 

Does this dissection and stress of dieting actually aid in achieving a healthier life? 

Do we know how to talk and think about food beyond its macronutrients? 

If we are solely focused on consuming macronutrients, how does this affect our relationship with food? 

How is this working for you?


Alison Nebosky is a certified nutritionist through Precision Nutrition.  She holds a BA in psychology.  Alison believes that when we share our nutrition strategies, meal ideas, and meals together, it leads to healthier and happier lives.  

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