I went to “Rohvolution”, a well-attended fair on healthy nutrition that takes place annually in four German cities. It mainly promotes raw food, but exhibitors of ‘superfoods’, ‘soulfoods’, and vegan foods also take part. The exhibitors each seemed convinced that they found the only true diet, the key to health, and support this with various scientific arguments. When it comes to diet, however, scientific data is often interpreted in a reductionist and thus incomplete way. How much do we actually know when it comes to body and diet?
Diet comes from the Greek word ‘diaita’ and means way of ‘living’ as opposed to way of ‘eating’. A controversial and talked about topic, diet cannot be oversimplified and reduced to numbers. It is complex, defined by the individual’s culture, religion and his ‘genetic programming’. The efficiency in which we digest is essential to health. It also depends on our cultural heritage. Someone whose ancestors have not consumed milk, for example, might have difficulties digesting lactose, and should obtain the nutrients in milk from other foods. Also, our capability to digest is not always the same and depends on our eating habits. According to the principles of Ayurveda, one should not eat when angry, depressed, bored, or otherwise emotionally unstable, because food is then not properly metabolized. When a reductionist theory is applied to nutrition, all of these outside factors, which vary from person to person, are not considered.
What is reductionism?
Reductionism studies complex things in terms of smaller constituents. According to Dr. Gyorgy Scrinis, lecturer in food politics at the University of Melbourne, ‘The dominant way of thinking about food and health, and of constructing diets could be called ‘nutritionism’ – a set of ideologies that reduces food to its nutrient components, taking attention away from the quality and types of foods.’ Scrini believes that focusing on nutrients and not on foods has led to ‘nutrition confusion’, which ‘the food and diet industries have exploited to help market processed foods and fad diets that often are of questionable health benefit.’ Consequently, we are bombarded with new scientific research claiming one particular nutrient to do wonders, which is then replaced by just another nutrient that shows to be even more wonderful. However, we “don’t eat nutrients, we eat food, and foods can behave very differently from the nutrients they contain,” says NYU Professor of Nutrition Marion Nestle, as ‘we differ in many ways and react differently to what we introduce into our body.’ This way of holistic thinking is related to the famous French example, which challenges reductionism.
French Paradox – the paradox within the paradox
The French paradox shows how differently scientists seem to read data and how difficult it is to explain phenomena by focusing on one single aspect (or in this case on one magical nutrient) alone. The French, even though they consume a high amount of saturated fats and alcohol, suffer a relatively low incidence of coronary heart disease. There is no definitive explanation for this phenomenon. It has been suggested that the compound resveratrol, which is found in red wine and shown to fight cancer, heart disease and other ailments is responsible for the paradox. However, its quantities in wine have turned out to be too low to justify the French Paradox. Research was also done on procyanidins, which are found in the highest numbers in the tannat grape in the southwest of France, whose quantities are sufficient enough to affect the paradox.
Dr. Will Clower, one of the main proponents of the Paradox, states in his book The Fat Fallacy that ‘the French may be healthier because of a combination of reasons: They eat less animal fat, less sugar and don’t snack. Moreover, they eat fish three times a week and consume smaller portions.’ And since they live in a warm climate they are also more likely to pursue physical exercise.
Hundreds of medical studies have been carried out, but there is nevertheless no medical consensus about whether moderate alcohol consumption alone can be associated with the paradox. Some scholars are suspicious against the French paradox and even deny its validity, claiming that the underreporting of coronary mortality by French physicians and the lack of sufficient data may have caused people to believe the French were healthier. In any case, there seem to be a number of reasons that account for the paradox, and if it exists at all, it can be by no means oversimplified and explained by just the one magical nutrient. Rather, in his New York Times article ‘Unhappy Meals,’ Michael Pollan suggests that the socializing effect of eating and drinking ‘the French way’ may be an important factor. ‘In the case of the French paradox, it may not be the dietary nutrients that keep the French healthy, so much as the dietary habits . . . and the serious pleasure taken in eating’, adding ‘let culture be your guide, not science.’
Enjoying food, its taste, and eating together is not part of the experience when one visits a food fair like “Rohvolution.” The whole point of eating is reduced to maintain bodily health. A reductionist paradigm ignores the mental and spiritual needs of the individual, and the possible interdependence of body, mind and spirit. After I went to Rohvolution, I met friends at the pub. We sat outside in the sun, had beer and schweinsbraten, and a great time.Text: Vanessa Gürtler