The Nutrition Society was founded in 1941 by Lord Boyd Orr. He was described in his obituary – rather fabulously – as “Baron and Nutritional Physiologist”, and in 1949 he casually picked up a Nobel Peace Prize. Since his time, the Nutrition Society seems to have gone rather badly downhill.
Here is a website, for example, run by two of the Nutrition Society’s “Registered Nutritionists” (www.nutrition-advice.com). They are “RNutr” like the rest, and they proudly display the Nutrition Society’s logo on their pages.
If you ask them to test you for nutritional deficiencies they offer you diagnosis by “electro-acupuncture”, and also provide “the very latest innovation in bio-energetic medicine”, their “Remedy Information Transfer Unit”. How does it work, you might ask? It can “copy and make up medicines homoeopathically”, and even more usefully “cancel out the bad vibrations of an allopathic drug”. Imagine a world in which that really worked: what if the machine got the frequencies just very slightly wrong, and cancelled out the vibrations of my body’s dopamine, or my insulin? After all, lots of “allopathic drugs”, or medicines as you and I might know them, are structurally similar, if not identical, to natural components of your factory fresh and unmodified human body. Forgive me if that inconvenient overlap interferes with your simplistic moral universe.
But this is surely one end of the scale, an extreme case? Maybe. But there is a more general problem here. The Nutrition Society is a genuine, sound academic body: they publish peer-reviewed journals like the British Journal of Nutrition and Public Health Nutrition. But now, alongside this serious academic work, perhaps flattered by the way their dry field has become so popular, they also vindicate a vast commercial industry of commercial “nutritionists” offering lifestyle advice in return for money.
“Nutritionism” is all about blurring the boundaries between sound theoretical academic research and lifestyle advice: as we have seen time and again in this column, the popular lifestyle nutritionists extrapolate from the behaviour of cells in a dish on a lab bench, when they have a nutrient squirted on them, to giving authoritative and highly specific, technical lifestyle advice; or they extrapolate from mere observational data to lifestyle advice.
I’ll explain what that means. You might remember Angela Dowden (RNutr), “Britain’s Leading Nutritionist” from last week. Here she is in the Mirror recently, writing about foods offering protection from the sun in the heatwave: “An Australian study in 2001 found that olive oil (in combination with fruit, vegetables and pulses) offered measurable protection against skin wrinkling. Eat more olive oil by using it in salad dressings or dip bread in it rather than using butter.” This is, forgive me, bread and butter nutritionism.
But the paper she refers to (Skin wrinkling: can food make a difference? Purba MB et al. J Am Coll Nutr. 2001 Feb; 20(1):71-80) was an observational study, not an intervention study. It did not give people olive oil for a time and then measure differences in wrinkles. I would not say this study justifies advising olive oil to reduce wrinkles, but you can make your own mind up. It pooled four different groups of people to get a range of diverse lifestyles, including Greeks, Anglo-Celtic Australians and Swedish people: it found that some people who already had completely different eating habits also already had different amounts of wrinkles. Imagine!
People with completely different lives will always have different diets, and different wrinkles, that doesn’t mean the food directly affects the wrinkles: it could be any number of other factors. I eat well and I don’t have many wrinkles. I also have a middle class background, an indoor job, and a life largely free from strife. To me, Dowden has extrapolated too far from the data (you may disagree) but she has done no more than any other commercial lifestyle nutritionist. The Nutrition Society, once a sober academic body, now endorses these commercially lucrative leaps of faith: or do they? I could complain to them about the wrinkle article, and see where they stand on such extrapolations, but they are so obsessed with secrecy that I wouldn’t be able to tell you the answer anyway. Here’s to Lord Boyd Orr.