Research in human nutrition over the past four decades has led to many discoveries as well as a comprehensive understanding of the exact mechanisms behind how food nutrients affect our bodies. As I discuss in my video Reductionism and the Deficiency Mentality, however, the “prevalence of epidemics of diet-related chronic diseases, especially obesity, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, cardiovascular diseases, and cancers, dramatically increases worldwide each year.” Why hasn’t all this intricate knowledge translated into improvements in public health? Perhaps it has to do with our entire philosophy of nutrition called reductionism, where everything is broken down into its constituent parts; food is reduced to a collection of single compounds with supposed 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-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, and cancer—can be eliminated if everyone followed four simple practices: not smoking, not being obese, getting a half hour of exercise a day, and eating a healthier diet, defined as more fruits, veggies, and whole grains, and less meat. Think what that could 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 on research such as figuring out whether there is some grape skin extract that can lower cholesterol in zebra fish or even trying to find out whether there are whole foods that can do the same? Why spend taxpayer dollars clogging the arteries of striped minnows by feeding them a high cholesterol diet to see whether 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 simply not clog our arteries in the first place? This dramatic drop in risk and increase in healthy life years through preventive nutrition need not involve superfoods or herbal extracts or fancy nutritional supplements—just healthier eating. When Hippocrates supposedly said, “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food,” he “did not mean that foods are drugs, but rather, that the best way to remain in good health is to maintain a healthy diet.” (Note: Hippocrates probably never actually said that—but it’s a great sentiment anyways!)
The historical attitude of the field of nutrition, however, may be best summed up by the phrase, “Eat what you want after you eat what you should.” In other words, eat whatever you want as long as you get your vitamins and minerals. This mindset is epitomized by breakfast cereals, which often provide 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.” Why not? Well, if food is good only for a few nutrients, then you can get away with selling vitamin-fortified Twinkies.
We need to shift from the concept of merely getting adequate nutrition to getting optimal nutrition. That is, we shouldn’t just aim to avoid scurvy, but we should promote health and minimize our risk of developing degenerative diseases.
Bringing things down to their molecular components works for drug development, for example, discovering all the vitamins and curing deficiency diseases. In the field of nutrition, “[h]owever, the reductionist approach is beginning to reach its limits.” We discovered all the vitamins more than a half-century ago. When is 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, and hypertension? Ever heard of anyone with any of those? Of course we have. Yet we continue to have this deficiency mindset when it comes to nutrition.
When someone tries to reduce their consumption of meat, why is “where are you going to get your protein?” the first question they get asked, rather than “if you start eating like that, where are you going to get your heart disease?” 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 just to eat healthy food.
Professor Emeritus T. Colin Campbell wrote a Whole book about this issue, and I’m looking forward to doing many more videos on the topic.
So, where do plant-eaters get protein? Check out Do Vegetarians Get Enough Protein? to learn more.
The concept of optimal, rather than merely adequate, nutrition is illustrated well in this video about fiber: Lose Two Pounds in One Sitting: Taking the Mioscenic Route.
Other videos on reductionism include
- Food Antioxidants and Cancer
- Treating Asthma with Plants vs. Supplements?
- Broccoli: Sprouts vs. Supplements
- Industry Response to Plants Not Pills
- Is the Fiber Theory Wrong?
- Food Synergy
- Culture Shock: Questioning the Efficacy and Safety of Probiotics
- Lycopene Supplements vs. Prostate Cancer
Michael Greger, M.D.
PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:
- 2012: Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death
- 2013: More Than an Apple a Day
- 2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food
- 2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet
- 2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers