Reductionism & the Deficiency Mentality

Reductionism & the Deficiency Mentality
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How the food, drug, and supplement industries have taken advantage of the field of nutrition’s reductionist mindset

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Research in human nutrition over the past 40 years has led to numerous discoveries, and to a comprehensive understanding of the exact mechanisms behind how food nutrients affect our bodies. However, the epidemics of diet-related chronic diseases—obesity, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, stroke, and cancers—dramatically increase worldwide, year after year.

Why hasn’t all this intricate knowledge translated into improvements in public health? Maybe it has to do with our entire philosophy of nutrition, called reductionism, where everything is broken down into its constituent parts, where food is reduced to a collection of single compounds with single effects. The reductionist approach has traditionally been, and continues today as, the dominant approach in nutrition research. For example, did you know that mechanistically, there’s a chemical in ginger root that down-regulates Phorbol Myristate Acetate (PMA)-induced phosphorylation of ERK1/2 and JNK MAP kinases? That’s actually pretty cool—but not while millions of people continue to die of diet-related disease.

We already know that three-quarters of chronic disease risk—diabetes, heart attacks, stroke, or cancer—can be eliminated if everyone follows four simple practices: not smoking, not being obese, half an hour of exercise a day, and eating a healthier diet—defined as more fruits, veggies, and whole grains, and less meat. Think what that would mean in terms of the human costs. We already know enough to save millions of lives. So, shouldn’t our efforts be spent implementing these changes before another dollar is spent figuring out whether there is some grape skin extract that can lower cholesterol in Zebrafishes, or even whole foods for that matter? Why spend taxpayer dollars clogging the arteries of striped minnows by feeding them a high cholesterol diet to see if hawthorn leaves and flowers have the potential to help? Even if they did, and even if it worked in people, too, wouldn’t it be better to just not clog your arteries in the first place?

This dramatic drop in risk, this increase in healthy life years through preventive nutrition, need not involve superfoods, or herbal extracts, or nutritional supplements—just healthier eating. When Hippocrates said something like, “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food,” he didn’t mean that foods are drugs, but rather that the best way to remain in good health is to maintain a healthy diet.

Whereas, the historical attitude of the field of nutrition may be best summed up by the phrase, “Eat whatever you want after you have eaten what you should.” In other words, eat whatever you want, as long as you get your vitamins and minerals: a mindset epitomized by breakfast cereals, providing double-digit vitamins and minerals. But the road to health is not paved with Coke plus vitamins and minerals. This reductionistic attitude is good for the food industry, but not actually good for human health—because if food is just good for a few nutrients, then you can get away with selling vitamin-fortified Twinkies.

We need to shift from the concept of just getting adequate nutrition, to getting optimal nutrition: not just avoiding scurvy, but promoting health, and minimizing our risk of developing degenerative diseases.

Bringing things down to their molecular components works for drug development, discovering all the vitamins, and curing deficiency diseases. But in the field of nutrition, the reductionist approach is beginning to reach its limits. We discovered all the vitamins more than a half century ago. When’s the last time you heard of someone coming down with scurvy, pellagra, or kwashiorkor—the classic deficiency syndromes? What about the diseases of dietary excess: heart disease, diabetes, obesity, hypertension—ever heard of anyone with any of those? Yet, we continue to have this deficiency mindset when it comes to nutrition.

When someone tries to reduce their consumption of meat, the first question they get asked is “Where are you going to get your protein?” rather than “Wait a second, if you start eating like that, where are you going to get your heart disease from?” The same deficiency mindset led to the emergence of a multibillion dollar supplement industry. What about a daily multivitamin just as insurance against nutrient deficiency? Better insurance would be to just eat healthy food.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Image thanks to KERBSTONE via Pixabay

Research in human nutrition over the past 40 years has led to numerous discoveries, and to a comprehensive understanding of the exact mechanisms behind how food nutrients affect our bodies. However, the epidemics of diet-related chronic diseases—obesity, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, stroke, and cancers—dramatically increase worldwide, year after year.

Why hasn’t all this intricate knowledge translated into improvements in public health? Maybe it has to do with our entire philosophy of nutrition, called reductionism, where everything is broken down into its constituent parts, where food is reduced to a collection of single compounds with single effects. The reductionist approach has traditionally been, and continues today as, the dominant approach in nutrition research. For example, did you know that mechanistically, there’s a chemical in ginger root that down-regulates Phorbol Myristate Acetate (PMA)-induced phosphorylation of ERK1/2 and JNK MAP kinases? That’s actually pretty cool—but not while millions of people continue to die of diet-related disease.

We already know that three-quarters of chronic disease risk—diabetes, heart attacks, stroke, or cancer—can be eliminated if everyone follows four simple practices: not smoking, not being obese, half an hour of exercise a day, and eating a healthier diet—defined as more fruits, veggies, and whole grains, and less meat. Think what that would mean in terms of the human costs. We already know enough to save millions of lives. So, shouldn’t our efforts be spent implementing these changes before another dollar is spent figuring out whether there is some grape skin extract that can lower cholesterol in Zebrafishes, or even whole foods for that matter? Why spend taxpayer dollars clogging the arteries of striped minnows by feeding them a high cholesterol diet to see if hawthorn leaves and flowers have the potential to help? Even if they did, and even if it worked in people, too, wouldn’t it be better to just not clog your arteries in the first place?

This dramatic drop in risk, this increase in healthy life years through preventive nutrition, need not involve superfoods, or herbal extracts, or nutritional supplements—just healthier eating. When Hippocrates said something like, “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food,” he didn’t mean that foods are drugs, but rather that the best way to remain in good health is to maintain a healthy diet.

Whereas, the historical attitude of the field of nutrition may be best summed up by the phrase, “Eat whatever you want after you have eaten what you should.” In other words, eat whatever you want, as long as you get your vitamins and minerals: a mindset epitomized by breakfast cereals, providing double-digit vitamins and minerals. But the road to health is not paved with Coke plus vitamins and minerals. This reductionistic attitude is good for the food industry, but not actually good for human health—because if food is just good for a few nutrients, then you can get away with selling vitamin-fortified Twinkies.

We need to shift from the concept of just getting adequate nutrition, to getting optimal nutrition: not just avoiding scurvy, but promoting health, and minimizing our risk of developing degenerative diseases.

Bringing things down to their molecular components works for drug development, discovering all the vitamins, and curing deficiency diseases. But in the field of nutrition, the reductionist approach is beginning to reach its limits. We discovered all the vitamins more than a half century ago. When’s the last time you heard of someone coming down with scurvy, pellagra, or kwashiorkor—the classic deficiency syndromes? What about the diseases of dietary excess: heart disease, diabetes, obesity, hypertension—ever heard of anyone with any of those? Yet, we continue to have this deficiency mindset when it comes to nutrition.

When someone tries to reduce their consumption of meat, the first question they get asked is “Where are you going to get your protein?” rather than “Wait a second, if you start eating like that, where are you going to get your heart disease from?” The same deficiency mindset led to the emergence of a multibillion dollar supplement industry. What about a daily multivitamin just as insurance against nutrient deficiency? Better insurance would be to just eat healthy food.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Image thanks to KERBSTONE via Pixabay

Doctor's Note

This is an issue Professor Emeritus T. Colin Campbell wrote a Whole book about. I’m looking forward to doing many more videos on the topic.

Where do plant-eaters get protein from, though? Check out Do Vegetarians Get Enough Protein?

The concept of optimal, rather than just adequate, nutrition is illustrated well in this video about fiber: Lose Two Pounds in One Sitting: Taking the Mioscenic Route.

Previous videos on reductionism include:

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