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The Pitfalls of Reductionism in Nutrition

by Vivienne Bradshaw-Black(more info)

listed in nutrition, originally published in issue 131 - January 2007

‘The Philosophy of Wholism (Greek holos) states that the whole
is greater than the sum of its parts.’

In medical terms this refers to treating a whole person rather than individual parts, such as circulation, digestion, skin, bones or classifications and symptoms of disease.

Reductionism, on the other hand, reduces whatever to its component parts, disregarding essential synergy (the interaction of factors making their combined effect greater than the sum of their individual parts). Understanding synergy opens doors to understanding in nutritional science, but also massively enlarges the scope of learning and research in related fields.

Human beings are integrated complexes of spirit, soul (mind) and body, and nutrition is no exception where reductionism is applied in the name of holistic health/therapy.  Nutrition has many factional camps, some of them being all-raw food proponents, vegetarians, vegans, low-fat, low-salt, low-carb, low-cholesterol diets, anti-candida diets, blood-type diets, one-food diets, exclusion diets, glycaemic index and calorie-counting diets.

Some of these nutritional factions value food sources, some do not. For example, a typical vegetarian might eat flour, egg and vegetables, but might not be concerned if the foods are organically grown or whole foods and vegetable soup is taken at ‘label value’, regardless of the stock used to make it, which could contain animal products.  Food types are commonly disregarded; also where non-meat products contain toxic fats, artificial sweeteners, flavours and colours but are labelled as ‘health foods’ because they don’t contain meat.

Another example is the low glycaemic index (GI) counter that looks at tables and chooses low index foods, but does not consider that a high index food might take more than one can eat in a few days to reach that index.  The comparison might not be relative to meal portions or digestive processes of refined versus unrefined foods. The GI of bread, for instance, is so variable that it cannot be accurately stated as one index. Personal digestive patterns are not taken into account; neither are other factors such as the potential toxicity of the ingredients. The GI is an incidental factor for each food, be it good, bad or even poisonous. However, get the food source and food choice[1] right first, and then the GI factor can be applied in quite a different way.

The low-fat, low-salt diets presume fat and salt to be bad for health. The first question is what fat and what salt? Before any food item can be assessed, it has to be qualified and this is rarely done in the study of nutrition. The reason for this is mainly politico-economic, but thankfully there are non-orthodox fringes where both fat and salt sources have been differentiated, allowing proper research and conclusions to be drawn, and more accurate health information tagged to fat types and salt types. These conclusions drastically alter the concept of low-fat/salt diets.[2]

When aptly applied in a holistic way to nutritional intake, most factions have something which can be beneficial but, in principle, reductionism can lead to imbalance and malnutrition. The counter side to this is where the manufacture of nutritional supplements is an attempt to redress malnutrition brought about by foods grown on exhausted and depleted soil. Growing in replete, organic soil is no longer available on a national basis. Deficient soil is not totally to blame though, as there are other factors involved in today’s wide-spread and often unrecognized state of malnutrition.

Food is not the prerogative of the body. Mind and body are inseparable, and sound nutrition is required for the healthy working of both. The multiple disorders of the immune system known as cancers, for instance, have various aspects of malnutrition recognized as factors, be they primary or secondary imbalances. They also have emotional and personality aspects[3] recognized as factors, which along with malnutrition, are considered as potentially both causal and relative to prognosis. Add to this the fundamental fact that each human being is totally unique and constantly changing in one way or another. An often cited aspect of immune dysfunction is depression and this has been linked to both malnutrition and emotional/personality anomalies in many research programmes. 

The importance of seeing things from a holistic perspective is the framework for all the individual pieces which contribute to overall health. Like a jigsaw puzzle, each piece fits in a place where other pieces cannot, but they are all essential to the outcome of seeing the whole. For individual pieces to argue that only they see the real picture is literally short-sighted.


1.    Nutrition Maze Parts 1 & 2. Positive Health Magazine. Issues 110 and 115.
2.    The Right Salt Diet. Positive Health Magazine. Issue 108. Feb 2005.
3.    Locke S and Colligan D. Plume Books. Penguin. USA. ISBN 0-452-27817-1.


  1. Chef Jem said..

    Much appreciated, Vivienne!

    The Western medical paradigm has mastered reductionism and the impact of that has been the death of many, many individuals as well as the decline of nations! I am certain that the phrase "divide and conquer" is an appropriate one in this regards. The "thinking" is systemic and has permeated virtually all of society. However there are "seeds of hope" toward the recovery of true wholism. My life-long dream is such a seed. Here is one example:

    I especially appreciate your mention of: the "emotional and personality aspects". Here is anothersite thatis a libray of information in thisregards;

    My Best Regards!

    ~Chef Jem

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About Vivienne Bradshaw-Black

Vivienne Bradshaw-Black Cert Ed produced a health information course. She believes that the understanding of what causes health and what causes sickness can cut through the maze of confusion which dominates the sickness industry. Her desire is to teach this to those who choose health and offer contacts and support to individuals and groups taking responsibility for their own health choices. She can be contacted initially by email at

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