Reductionism and the Deficiency Mentality

Reductionism and the Deficiency Mentality

September 16, 2019 72 By Ewald Bahringer


“Reductionism and
the Deficiency Mentality” Research in human nutrition
over the last 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 increases 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 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-regulated
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
diseases. We already know that three-quarters of chronic disease
risk — diabetes, heart attacks, stroke, cancer — can be
eliminated if everyone who didn’t, followed four simple practices:
not smoking, not being obese, 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 cost. 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 or not some grape skin extract can
lower cholesterol in zebrafish — 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 super foods or herbal extracts or fancy
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 may be 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 eat 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 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, 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, or pellagra, or kwashiorkor —
the classic deficiency syndromes? Whereas, 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 may 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 multi billion-dollar
supplement industry. What about a daily multivitamin just
as insurance against nutrient deficiency? Better insurance would
be to just eat healthy food.