Reductionist Nutrition Research That Will Break Hearts

The study published in The Annals of Internal Medicine entitled: Association of Dietary, Circulating and Supplement Fatty Acids With Coronary Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta Analysis’ suggests that the type and quantity of dietary fat may not be important factors in coronary artery disease (CAD) risk. The mainstream media jumped on this study because, as Dr. John McDougall often says, “People love to hear good news about their bad habits”.

This study once again demonstrates the folly of taking a reductionist approach to nutrition research.  As T. Colin Campbell writes:

Reductionism by definition seeks to eliminate all “confounding” factors: any variables that might influence the outcome in addition to the main substance under investigation. But because nutrition is a wholistic phenomenon, it simply doesn’t make any sense to study it as if it were a single variable. Studying nutrition as if it were a single-function pill disregards its complex interactions.” 

Dr. Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health states:

“The single macronutrient approach is outdated; I think future dietary guidelines will put more and more emphasis on real food rather than giving an absolute upper limit or cutoff point for certain macronutrients.”

The reductionist mindset of many nutritional scientists has caused the decades-long confused haze that afflicts people who seek to discover  the healthiest human diet. Continued focus on single nutrients and single outcomes will result in current and future generations to continue to wallow in the nutrition research mire.

We must start treating nutrition as a wholistic phenomenon. and stop trying to tease out one contribution from a diet and ignore the rest. As Dr. Campbell says:

“Of course body fat, dietary fat, education level, depression, socioeconomic standing, and so many more characteristics are interrelated and interactive with one another and with our bodies’ systems. While statistical adjustments can pretend to wrap up reality into neat little packages, they don’t explain the underlying reality at all. “

The Cambridge University meta analysis looked at studies that compared bad diets with bad diets and attempted to tease out the contribution of specific components from the bad diets. It’s a pretty safe bet that folks who ate fewer animal foods (less saturated fat) probably ate more processed junk and vegetable oils. It’s no wonder that researchers didn’t find a significant difference between saturated and unsaturated fatty acids.

We need to emphasize studies that compare diets and assess multiple health outcomes. There is no shortage of these studies.

Dr. Campbell’s work in China compared plant based diets with very plant based diets in people who were eating WHOLE and minimally processed plant foods.  He found as animal food intake increased, so did the prevalence of many chronic diseases, including heart disease.

Research led by Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn Jr. and The Nathan Pritikin Research Foundation show that their diets protect against and REVERSE  CAD, and other chronic diseases!

Their research confirms  wholistic research that points to whole food plant based (WFPB) diets as disease preventing and health promoting. Wholistic research includes:

  • Ecological studies  –  survey and compare populations as they already exist, and see what they eat and how healthy they are
  • Biomimickry – look at our nearest animal relatives—gorillas and chimps—and see what they eat
  • Evolutionary Biology  – examine our physiology and determine what our bodies have evolved to ingest and process

Reductionist scientists completely disregard wholistic evidence that can teach people the ideal human diet.  The truth is available for all to see.  All you have to do is open your eyes and activate your mind.

I’ll finish with Dr. Campbell’s eloquent statement:

“You can’t study wholistic phenomena solely through reductionist modes of inquiry without sacrificing reality, and truth, in the process”.

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