This excerpt taken from Dr. Campbell’s newest book, The Future of Nutrition, explores how a reductionist paradigm limits our medical system’s approach to disease and health. To learn more about reductionism and its alternative —wholism— read our webpage on Whole.
The vast majority of individuals involved in the health sciences are good people, but their system is letting them, and us, down. In medicine, the dominance of reductionism translates to an ever-sharpening focus on individual diseases and their specific treatments. It is regularly assumed that each and every disease has a specific cure. At every turn in the system we are met with a highly skilled specialist: one to research the individual mechanisms of the disease, another to develop the drug, another to perform the surgery, and even one to labor over who will pay the bill. But we are all paying a greater price, because Nature cannot be tricked into the specialist’s box. Nor can health crises that afflict the whole body and arise as a result of numerous causes interacting dynamically, even symphonically. Each and every “side” effect of our current preferred treatments (including drugs, supplements, and surgery) testifies to the insufficiency of our reductionist practice and to the wholistic nature of health and disease. Our “treatment” of preventable diseases like cancer is characterized by reacting to symptoms rather than proactively addressing their causes; by dangerous, unnatural, pharmacological “solutions” with shockingly poor success rates and many unintended problems of their own; and by exorbitant costs for both individual patients and society as a whole.
We should not be surprised, therefore, that our health care system is always playing catch-up. Reductionist specialization is perfectly suited to the study of disease as we have come to define disease. Health—which is not merely the absence of disease, but actually the complete opposite of disease—is too large a subject for any one specialty. So long as the time and energy of virtually every medical professional is tied up in the reactive treatment of disease, the mantra of our medical system will never be health promotion. Even within individual specialties, disease treatment occupies so much of our time and energy that we fail to address disease prevention. Changing this would require a broader understanding of health and disease than our current system can manage.
Again, this is not a critique of the trusted specialists who make up our “health care” system, as individuals. I do not fear them, I fear for them. I fear for their impossible task of promoting health well past the point of disease’s takeover. Specialization is a phenomenal tool, but it cannot be our only tool.
Where, then, does that leave us? And what about nutrition? Informed experts in the field of nutrition should be better equipped to discuss the control of disease, since food is linked far more naturally to health, disease, prevention, and treatment than any pill or invasive procedure. When you eat health-promoting foods, you feel healthy, and vice versa; preventing unhealthy outcomes becomes a mere matter of careful observation and appropriate action. This may seem like something of an oversimplification when considering larger populations, but my larger point is this: whereas drugs and procedures react, food provokes. Even if we aren’t mindful and deliberate about provoking healthful outcomes, we have not escaped food’s grip. More likely we have simply forgotten food’s natural powers and are mindlessly letting it string us toward disease and death.
Nutrition, then, as a provocative but natural science, offers a unique opportunity to radically challenge and depart from the disease-maintenance system that currently burdens our society. Perhaps this is even its principal role. That nutrition, as it currently exists, has not issued this challenge on a wide scale is a condemnation of the broader medical system, in addition to nutrition scientists themselves. Mirroring the rest of science, the field of nutrition has adopted its own reactive, reductionist, highly specialized approach—an approach that does not line up with how nutrition really works. In fact, the very concept of “reductionist nutrition” is an oxymoron. Sadly, though, this is what the field has become, and in so becoming, nutrition’s potential to prevent and treat many of our most dreaded diseases has been reduced. By dividing nutrition into its smallest components, and by studying those components simplistically and in isolation, nutrition has been cheapened to the point of uselessness.
What we need now is a radical overhaul of reductionist nutrition.
The Future of Nutrition: An Insider’s Look at the Science, Why We Keep Getting It Wrong, and How to Start Getting It Right
In The Future of Nutrition, T. Colin Campbell cuts through the noise with an in-depth analysis of our historical relationship to the food we eat, the source of our present information overload, and what our current path means for the future—both for individual health and society as a whole. The Future of Nutrition offers a fascinating deep-dive behind the curtain of the field of nutrition—with implications both for our health and for the practice of science itself.
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