Beyond the Science of Modern Nutrition

Modern nutritional science can be very confusing.  It often seems that what is vilified one day is redeemed the next, calling into question the reliability of the Western scientific approach to diet.  Eggs have been celebrated as the perfect protein while also being implicated in heart disease.  Last year, a study proclaimed that coffee contributed to longevity, but, just recently, consumer advocates have called for warnings about the carcinogenic compounds in roasted coffee beans.  For decades, by law, all products containing saccharin required a disclaimer label.  After pressure from lobbyists, the FDA announced that it was all a mistake and dropped the legal requirement for labeling.

Every person on the planet needs to eat to live, and many of us rely on science to make judicious dietary choices to improve our quality of life, minimize disease, and promote a long lifespan.  The origin and development of modern nutrition, however, has not generated societal health and wellness in America. On the contrary, as the science has progressed, obesity and disease directly linked to poor eating habits have spiraled frighteningly out of control.

To be fair, many of us ignore the admonitions of health authorities, allowing ourselves to be seduced by addictive treats, persuaded through clever advertising, and won over by convenience.  Case in point, few of us eat the total daily number of servings of fruit and vegetables advocated by nutritional experts, a failing that certainly impacts our health as a nation.  On the other hand, at the behest of nutritionists, the past few decades have seen Americans reduce beef consumption in favor of chicken.  Trading in our sirloins for drumsticks, however, has not paid off in any measurable benefits to health.  Is the campaign against red meat, like the science on the cancer-causing properties of saccharin, the product of bad science?

Ultimately, scientists face a fundamental dilemma handling the daunting chemical complexity of foods.  The scientific method depends on reducing and controlling variables and, at some point, as variables multiply, the dictum known as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle predicts that scientific analysis will become logistically impossible.  The human diet is a perfect example of science hitting a brick wall.

To understand this better, imagine a symphony orchestra.  Just as an orchestral performance is more than the product of a single musician playing an instrument, the foods we eat are complex aggregates of chemicals.  Milk, for example, consists of water, fat, proteins, lactose, minerals, and numerous trace elements, each akin to individual musicians in the orchestra.  Grouping together all the similar components in foodsproteins, for examplelarger units are formed that echo the orchestral instrument sections.  Finally, the skillful coordination of all the sections into a harmonious whole yields the final product:  a unique food, the alimentary equivalent of a performance of Mozart's Requiem.

Not unlike someone who gives all the credit for a performance to the conductor, nutritional science tends to characterize foods based on their primary nutrients.  Instead of identifying the special character of each food, lentils and turkey get tossed together as "proteins", while rice and potatoes fall under the rubric of "carbohydrates".  Although this simplifies dietary recommendations, it ignores the unique effect of each food on human physiology which, in turn, is a function of the sum total of its special chemistry.

Faced with its failure to achieve health through diet, nutritionists have resorted to recommending the traditional diets of healthy societies.  For example, the Mediterranean diet, scientifically proven in studies, is now offered to patients as a template of healthful eating.  This new approach not only avoids oversimplifying the intricate chemical structure of foods but also provides a more practical solution in the kitchen.  For people making real life choices, it is easier, and more enjoyable, to add extra virgin olive oil and garlic to their cooking than it is to attempt to balance the ratio of protein to carbs.