My attention has recently been prompted toward the contrast between holistic (wholistic) and reductionist research, and the role that these two divergent paradigms play in the research community in regards to nutrition. I have been reading Whole by Dr. T. Colin Campbell and in his prose he explains the difference between the two types of research with great emphasis on how destructive reductionist research can be to our overall understanding of nutrition.
I don’t mean to be redundant if you’ve already read the book, but I feel that it is necessary to discuss a portion of what he wrote. For those of you who are unaware of what wholism and reductionism are, here are definitions:
Wholism: Believing that something can be more than the sum of it’s parts. A wholistic study would view the object in question as something that is defined beyond the scope of the sum of its parts.
Reductionism: Believing that a whole being is comprised solely of it’s parts, and that if you can map out and identify each tiny piece, you will eventually be able to explain how and why that being in question works the way it does.
I think reductionism is wonderful for producing preliminary data, and for understanding the very basics of a system. However, the idea behind reductionism simply doesn’t work when trying to define an entire complex system such as the human body. Don’t believe me? How about we take a little refresher course, and delve deep into the back of your science mind, and dust off those cobwebs. Remember Kurt Gödel? In 1931 mathematician Kurt Gödel attempted to apply reductionist techniques to define a complex system. He mathematically proved that a complex system could not be known in its entirety, and that a system that could be known in its entirety was merely a subset of a larger complex system. Basically, the universe has limits, and we will never understand these limits no matter how hard we try. IT IS MATHEMATICALLY PROVEN. Yet for some reason, we try day in and day out to define the human body by breaking it up into tiny parts. If a reductionist wishes to break the human body down into it’s most simple units, where and when do they stop doing so? What is the smallest unit, and what defines the smallest system? Is is metabolism? Hell no. Is it the cell? Probably not. Is it the system of molecules traveling in and out of the cell? There are never ending possibilities.
My biggest problem with reductionism is the idea that all of these studies take place in controlled environments, and because of this they don’t provide any real conclusive evidence. The human body isn’t a Petri dish, and it never will be. Our internal and external environments are constantly changing depending on a bevy of factors. So why is it that we’re so tickled pink by the information we conclude from cells in a dish? You can make nearly any study viable with reductionism. For example, if you take a salubrious amount of animal protein and feed it to a cluster of human cells in a controlled environment, chances are those cells will grow and divide. That does not necessarily mean that humans absolutely must consume animal protein in order to grow. Nor does it mean that animal protein is healthy, and it certainly doesn’t give rise to the idea that animal protein can’t contribute to chronic disease. However, the reductionist preforming this study can very easily (and candidly) claim that based on study XYZ animal protein is suggested to be necessary for human health based on data ABC. But this evidence doesn’t really tell us anything in the grand scheme of human health because the environment within the Petri dish may not ever exist within the human body, especially for a prolonged period of time. Furthermore, when those cells are immersed into the complex system that is the human body, they will be interacting with far more than just the animal protein.
In order to draw some real conclusive data regarding nutrition we must study the whole being -it’s as simple as that. Thankfully, such preliminary studies have been conducted, but more work needs to be done. Researchers, including Dr. T. Colin Campbell, have studied populations in various parts of the world and their diets proving that a whole foods plant based diet seems to be the best. Studies have been conducted to determine the relationship between plant based diets and cardio vascular disease and diabetes. These studies have drawn conclusions that should serve as the basis of nutritional research, and should be regarded venerable. Unfortunately, many skeptics, critics and powerful industries push for reductionism because it is their only hope for convincing consumers that their products are necessary for human health (remember, nearly anything can be proven via reductionism). Because big business needs reductionism, they will pay for it, and that is why wholistic studies lack funding.
Simply put, these are the reasons why there is so much confusion when it comes to human health. One dietitian is taught one thing, and another is taught something completely different depending on who funded the study. One medical doctor reads a reductionist paper published in the Journal of Nutrition claiming that animal protein is good, and another reads somewhere else that animal protein is detrimental to human health. No one is intentionally screwed up, the problem lies within the priorities of the research community. Are you proving something for money? Fame? Or are you genuinely concerned about human health? This world needs to stop training young scientists such as myself to conduct irrelevant studies. There is a bigger picture here people, and as of right now it’s a puzzle awaiting to be pieced together.