The reductionist flaw in our nutrition system

January 8, 2014 in nutrition

While a reductionist focuses on single processes within the body, a wholist focuses on the entire system and its health. The reductionist says: Lets study what a vitamin does in the body! The wholist says: Lets eat healthy, plant based foods! America’s nutritional system is very focused on reductionism. It has hidden the big picture from us; the big picture being the whole body. Instead we focus on single nutrients, single processes. And this was intentional. Why? Because the big bucks are in reductionism. The big bucks are in pills and surgery and all that jazz. People don’t get surgery when the body was healthy in the first place.

American’s nutritional model has filtered through a lense of reductionism. We’re stuck in this paradigm that distorts the big picture of nutrition. We’re mistaken a part for the whole dang thing.

Campbell explains this using the good ole’ blind people and an elephant metaphor. A group of blind people are touching different parts of an elephant, disagreeing and arguing over what it is.

“It’s a rope!” says the person touching the tail.

“It’s a tree!” says the person feeling the leg.

“It’s a spear!” says the person feeling the tusk.

How can these people expect to come to an agreement unless they can see the whole picture – in this case – the whole elephant? How can we expect to understand the entire body if we are focusing on single parts?

“Filters – mental and literal – become problematic only when we forget about them and think that what we’re seeing is the whole of reality, instead of a very narrow slice of it. Paradigms become prisons only when we stop recognizing them as paradigms – when we think that water is all there is, so we don’t even have a name for it anymore. In a world shaped by the paradigm of water, anyone who suggests the existence of “not water” is automatically a heretic, a lunatic, or a clown.” – T. Colin Campbell

But the battle between reductionism and wholism is pointless; both are necessary. One does not oppose the other; both are important. Wholism encompasses reductionism. Wholism needs reductionism to advance, and reductionism need wholism to remain relevant. An organ obviously is a single system, but it is a system that relies, depends, and communicates with the entire body.

“Each part is an integral element of the same system, all the parts are connected to one another, no one part stands alone. And this means each part affects and is affected by the other parts. Removing or modifying a part changes the whole, just as changing the whole … impacts the parts – that is, when one part is altered, all the other parts are forced to adapt to try and keep the system running.”


Further reading on this topic…

Why are supplements are suspicious?

How and why are we locked in this reductionist system? (Coming soon)


Campbell, T. Colin, and Howard Jacobson. Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition. N.p.: BenBella, 2013. Print.