Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition
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In this chapter, we’ll look at the two competing paradigms in science and medicine: reductionism and wholism. We’ll see that triumph of reductionism over wholism over the past several hundred years - rather than reductionism being used as a tool in the service of wholistic understanding - has seriously impaired our ability to make sense of the world.
If you are a reductionist, you believe that everything in the world can be understood if you understand all its component parts. A wholist, on the other hand, believes that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.
As we’ll see, choosing one paradigm or the other leads to very different approaches to science, medicine, commerce, politics, and life itself.
Reductionism is not, in itself, a bad thing. Indeed, reductionist research has been responsible for some of the most profound breakthroughs of the past several centuries.
Wholism does not oppose reductionism; rather, wholism encompasses reductionism, just as each whole encompasses its parts.
Ironically, this dismissal of wholism by scientists is the height of dogmatism, a fundamentalist stance that denies the possibility of any truth other than that granted by reductionism.
Science and theology are both lenses through which to interact with and interpret reality, sort of like a microscope and a pair of binoculars. Both sets of lenses tell us more about the world than we could see with the naked eye, but the information we get from each can diverge considerably.
Greek scientist/theologians such as Pythagoras, Socrates, Aristotle, or Plato wrote and spoke about food and health, justice, women’s rights, literature, and theology as easily and with as much passion and conviction as they wrote about geology, physics, and mathematics.
Somewhere along the line - and I don’t claim to be a historian, so I’ll leave the details to them - science and theology diverged, to the impoverishment of both. Church officials attached rigid dogmas to certain understandings of the universe, with the result that any questioning of those understandings constituted heresy.
Firsthand observation of reality was now rightly viewed as a dangerous activity - for what if you observed something that contradicted current theology?
It was not until the thirteenth century or so that science began to reemerge, thus defining a new era, the Renaissance, that led to a clash between the faith-based and rationalist viewpoints.
For the next 300 years (1600-1900), many notable and courageous scholars and scientists made observations that continued to build a foundation for the supremacy of scientific facts over theological faith - at least in the minds of many.
But this new humanism, having clawed its way to respectability against a doctrinaire Church, became far less tolerant of theology than its classical Greek ancestor.
This included not just religion, but any idea that did not adhere to scientific views, in which truth was found only through breaking down the observable world into as many smaller parts as possible. In short: reductionism.
The history of the last 200 years has been the inexorable march of reductionism in all aspects of our lives, from science, to nutrition, to education (think of all the “subjects” taught in isolation from one another), to economics (think of microeconomics versus macroeconomics), and even the human soul (think of how it has been reduced to a map of nerves and networks in the brain).
In rejecting religious control of science, we also are rejecting the useful perspectives theology offers: a way of looking at the world as a fundamentally connected whole. A willingness to accept that there are things we may not ever be able to fully understand, and instead can only observe.
Could facts ever fully explain the inspiration and awe we feel when listening to great music, wondering about the beginning and end of the universe, or admiring other people’s talents and emotions?
Quantum physics dispensed with objectivity altogether, describing subatomic particles in terms of probabilities rather than realities. Werner Heisenberg showed that we could at any moment observe either the position or the speed of an electron, but not both.
Reductionism - in effect, the quest for this kind of full disclosure - is incredibly useful, but the more we learn, the more clear it is that reductionism is insufficient to the task of understanding the universe.
He understood that wholism needed reductionism to advance, and reductionism needed wholism to remain relevant. He realized that when you take something out of context to study it more closely or measure it more exactly, you risk losing more wisdom than you gain.
While death rates in developed countries plummeted in the early part of the twentieth century largely due to an understanding of hygiene,1 none of the ultra-expensive high-tech advances of the past fifty years have made a dent in overall rates of death and disease in first-world countries. And while medicine is now much better equipped to save someone’s life after an acute event like a car crash or a sudden heart attack than it was fifty years ago, we’re really no better at preventing chronic degenerative diseases like heart disease and cancer, often called “diseases of affluence,” than we were in the 1950s.
In a world where millions of people die of starvation and starvation-related diseases every year, we still inexplicably insist on the gross inefficiency of cycling our plant production through animals before considering it “food.”
Factory-farmed animals on this planet consume more calories than all the humans, by a long shot.
The problems we face are far more connected than disconnected. Think of the way galaxies are made up of clusters of stars, held together by gravity; these social problems are clustered the same way, except the gravitational pull between them is the food we choose to eat.
The reductionist mental prison is the main thing keeping us from doing grand things for ourselves, each other, and the rest of sentient life on earth. We need to learn how to look for the natural networks that connect many seemingly disconnected events and activities. Only through doing so can we finally find the answers that elude us - whether that’s the answer to global warming, the solution to world hunger, or the effective and compassionate healing of our society’s most fearful health problems.
The problem is not that humans are broken or evil. It’s that the system is broken.
The thing about systems is that they’re resilient.
You can tweak all the details - you can correct the science all you want - but if the goal isn’t changed, the system will continue to produce the same outcomes it always has.
To discover that goal, as with any other system, we have to observe what it does, not what it claims to do.
The goal of our health system is not health; it’s profit for a few industries at the expense of the public good.
What all this means is that, in the current system, we don’t have free choices; we have constrained choices. *
I need to emphasize that these negative outcomes are not the goal of the current system. They’re simply an unavoidable side effect of the primary goal: ever-increasing profits for the several industries whose activities constitute and maintain the system.
As I said, this isn’t a story of nefarious individuals’ intentions; to the contrary, most of the people contributing to the current mess truly believe they’re doing good.
And yet these wonderful intentions end up in the service of more profit and more disease.
This problem is not inherent to the free market, but rather the result of a market manipulated by its most powerful participants, often through collusion with a government far removed from the people it is supposed to serve.
In a system that seeks the public welfare * over profits for a few, companies and individuals could still make plenty of money, just as oaks and hickories can still get mighty big in the forest. They would just do it in a fashion that can be sustained indefinitely, because the other elements of the system would flourish, too.
And all that profit means the industries that make it have a lot of extra money to throw around to ensure they can make more of it in the future. In short, they have power. *
In a healthcare system like ours, where profit is the ultimate goal, money is the most powerful force available, allowing those who have it to influence, almost invisibly, government policy, the media, popular culture, and the conversations that take place in the privacy of our own homes and minds.
Media outlets are punished with the withdrawal of advertising for reporting unfavorably on advertisers’ products, making them less likely to do so; journalists know their salaries depend on that revenue. Politicians who pass legislation and write statutes favorable to certain kinds of commerce are rewarded with campaign donations from industry groups who benefit from these laws and statutes. Nowhere in this process can you see violence or even green-stained fingerprints.
But behaviour that supports the current paradigm is rewarded, and behaviour that does not is disincentivised. These carrots and sticks are mostly silent, seldom pointed to, and never discussed.
This is how a system like ours - in which the goal of ever-increasing profits for the few is pursued at the expense of our health - can continue, even though that goal is not shared by the vast majority of people within it. Thanks to the rewards and punishments subtle power uses, people behave in ways they otherwise would not - ways that maintain the current system.
What we have is a vicious cycle that concentrates power more and more exclusively in the hands of those who already wield it.
The structure of the medical industry makes it very difficult for decent and caring doctors to act contrary to the industry’s selfish, profit-seeking, defensive attitude. Those who buck the system face not just ideological pressure, but ideological pressure backed up by the subtle power of money. In some cases, even their license to practice may be challenged.
Worldwide total dietary supplement sales in 2007 totalled $187 billion. Yet, with the immense growth of this “health” product market, the only thing getting any healthier is the supplement industry’s bottom line.
Many other books detail the ways in which corporate money has corrupted government and institutional policies, and not just when it comes to our health.
At its best and most useful, science combines the arts of wholistic observation, reductionist observation, and experimentation in pursuit of human well-being.
What most scientists are doing today really should be called technology, not science.
Science is defined by the scientific method; it’s an unbiased search for truth and a willingness to be proved wrong. Technology is defined by market potential; only those questions that can be answered with dollar signs are deemed worthy of investigation.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. The subjugation of science to industrial profits has been going on for at least the past century, since capitalism devised the intellectual property protections that could fully reward those whose discoveries and inventions could be converted to products, sales, and capital.
The system became self-replicating and self-perpetuating; initial market success provided the capital to fund subsequent market success.
Human health, happiness, and overall well-being cannot and will not be fully advanced by a corrupted free-market model manipulated by its most powerful participants. Instead of wholistic nutrition, the free-market engine gives us marketable fragments: supplements and nutraceuticals. When we get sick from lack of proper nutrition, the market engine obliges us with reductionist solutions: patented drugs and expensive surgeries.
Unfortunately, over the last few decades I have observed a gradual encroachment by the corporate sector and its priorities into the domain of basic research at universities and related research agencies. The effects of this encroachment can be seen at nearly every level, from individual study design (what gets studied and how) and the way scientists interpret their findings, to the directions their careers take. *
I have become more and more convinced that marketplace potential is the only goal of even the most basic, non-applied biomedical research.
Genetics, as we’ve seen, is a much hotter topic than nutrition. The projected market potential of gene therapy to enhance the immune system drives much more funding than the possible market potential of broccoli. The money flows to genetics and drug testing not because these are the most promising or cost-effective ways to improve overall human health, but because they are the most profitable ways to address our need for human health - or, put another way, they are the best way to meet market demand.
Sadly, the public has become convinced that these research priorities are the best way of achieving our health goals, when they are just the best way of achieving greater profit.
But the profit motive doesn’t just limit researchers’ ability to do rigorous science through industry’s funding priorities; it also leads to serious negative consequences, such as industry’s push to translate questionable research findings into profit as quickly as possible.
Without the media, scientific discoveries would languish, unacknowledged and unapplied, in the minds and lab notebooks of the scientists who made them. So the media plays an indispensable role in transporting information from the realm of its creation to that of its application.
All in all, the story the media tells us about health and nutrition comes from a script written * by the very people who profit from our pain and suffering. I’ve had far too many firsthand experiences of media manipulation, obfuscation, and suppression of the powerful connection between food and health to believe otherwise.
If someone asked you to create public health policy for which the goal was to mislead the maximum number of people in ways that would compromise their health while profiting the pharmaceutical, medical, and junk food industries, you couldn’t do much better than what’s currently in place.
Corporate interests don’t just fund elections; they are willing and able to end political careers and derail progressive legislation as soon as they get a whiff of any move that might threaten their bottom line. And that means laws are enacted that further the interests of the wealthiest rather than the public good.
While the world is rife with unethical behaviour, it would be a mistake to blame the problems I have discussed up to this point solely on individual morality. If we limit our sight to individual players, we’ll never see the big picture. The issue is a systemic one, maintained by interconnected actors, all acting in their self-interest to further their goals. The trouble is not, or not always, the actors themselves, or their intrinsic motivations. Instead, it’s the overarching goal of the entire system that’s at fault: corporate profit above public health.
Biology is incomprehensibly complex. The way our bodies create and maintain health is the result of millions of years of evolution - not just of individual cells, not just of organs, not just of functional systems, or even of the entire body, but of the body as a part of the food web and all of nature. Yet, either due to ignorance or motivated by avarice, some of us mere mortals want to tinker with the separate elements, taking the whole apart and using the pieces to create our own false reality. Disease, disability, and untimely death are the inevitable results.
The most important step is to change the way you eat. The diet is simple: eat whole, plant-based foods, with little or no added oil, salt, or refined carbohydrates like sugar or white flour. (Though it may take some research, there are cookbooks out there that will fit your needs - more of them now than ever before.)
It’s time for us to begin a real revolution - one that begins by challenging our individual beliefs and changing our diets, and ends with the transformation of our society as a whole.