The Fat is Hitting the Fan – Reductionism in Practice

A recent report in the Daily Telegraph1  reported that GP’s are no longer able to cope with the ‘tidal wave‘ of patients coming to them with multiple diseases. This is symptomatic of what the modern Western diet is doing to our populations – when the dietary intake is unhealthy, the whole body becomes unhealthy.

I have gone into some detail elsewhere2   about the difference between the reductionist and wholistic approach to health care: the former treats individual symptoms of so-called individual diseases with individual pharmaceutical/surgical ‘solutions’, while the latter regards the human organism as a whole and aims to treat all the causes of disease via dietary changes.

The following is a summary of some of the main points made in article interspersed with additional research findings.

  • GPs are struggling to cope with a “tidal wave” of ever younger patients with multiple health problems, fuelled by unhealthy lifestyles, experts have warned.
  • The Academy of Medical Sciences said the number of older patients with at least two conditions has risen by almost 50 per cent in a decade.
  • Diseases “once almost unheard of” at a young age are increasingly being diagnosed:3
    • Allergies  4  . While it is possible that parents are increasingly attuned to food allergies, it turns out that hospitalisations for severe food allergies is the main diagnosis that has increased substantially over the last two decades.
    • Type 2 diabetes 5  . The rate of this disease has been rising in recent decades, both in the US and in Europe. The disease, if left untreated, is fatal – it is hard to miss or over-diagnose.
    • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) 6  . Severe bowel disease has been increasing in children, most notably since 1990. Two autoimmune diseases, UC (ulcerative colitis) and CD (Crohn’s disease), appear to be on the rise in children.
    • Neurodevelopmental Illnesses 7  .  The rates of ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, and neurodevelopmental disability have been increasing. Exposure to certain pesticides and dietary habits during pregnancy are among known risk factors for neurodevelopmental disorders, including lower IQ and impaired motor skills.
    • Coeliac Disease 8  . This is another autoimmune disease that has increased in children. In a study that examined blood banked since 1974, it was found that the presence of antibodies characteristic of coeliac disease has, in fact, been doubling every 15 years since that time. This trend began before the introduction of GM food, and has continued since.
    • Obesity 9 10   “Obesity is likely to supersede tobacco as the biggest cause of premature death. England has some of the worst figures and trends in obesity compared with the rest of Europe. Rising obesity prevalence is an international crisis that has the potential to overwhelm health care resources as well as creating enormous human suffering and social cost.
    • Cardiovascular disease (CVD)9  . “Overweight and obesity is a major public health concern that includes associations with the development of cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors during childhood and adolescence as well as premature mortality in adults.
  • Prof Stephen MacMahon11 , chairman of The Academy of Medical Sciences working group, said Britain was among countries seeing a “massive increase” in the number of patients suffering multiple conditions.
  • Around one in three Britons over the age of 50 are now estimated to suffer from multiple health problems – amounting for at least 15 million people.
  • The trend could not just be attributed to the ageing nature of the population, researchers said, warning that increasing levels of obesity were fuelling diseases such as diabetes and heart disease at an ever younger age.
  • The average GP consultation is just 10 minutes. This is insufficient to deal with the growing numbers of patients with several health complaints. Prof. MacMahon said “It’s extremely difficult to manage a patient with half a dozen diseases in 10 minutes. What happens is multiple consultations each focusing on the individual diseases.
  • The health service is not set up to care for the needs of rising numbers of patients suffering chronic conditions, often fuelled by unhealthy lifestyles.
  • Millennials are set to be the fattest generation on record, with obesity causing nine in ten cases of type 2 diabetes.
  • The average person aged 65 is likely to have three or more health conditions  – rising to between five and seven among those aged 85 and over.
  • Dr Lynne Corner, from the Newcastle University Institute for Ageing and Faculty of Medical Sciences said health services needed to be reorganised around the needs of those with multiple health conditions.  “It can be a full time job being a patient,” she said. “It’s not unusual for someone to have five different appointments on five different days with five different teams and that can be really difficult to manage.”

Joe’s Comments

The wholistic approach to the human organism looks at each system, organ, tissue and cell as being linked together in an infinitely complex network. Affecting one part, affects the others. There is no such thing as an isolated health event, and so there is no sense in trying to treat individual and isolated diseases as though they are somehow independent and exist in isolation.

The thing that comes into contact with our bodies in the most intimate way is food and drink. Nothing else touches it for molecule by molecule interaction with us – both physiologically and psychologically. Yes, we can breathe toxic air or smoke and touch toxic substances, but the intimate contact that the food we put into our mouths has with every one of the billions of cells in our bodies (and trillions of bacteria in our guts) is incomparable.

We Are what we EAT – in a very real sense. But when we go to see out doctor, how many of us are asked about what we eat? Not many! And this is at best negligent and at worst criminal, in view of the wealth of research data showing that diet is the leading cause of almost all modern chronic non-communicable diseases.12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

So when a newspaper article like this appears, can we expect the responses of the various sections of society affected by it to be reductionist or wholistic? Let’s see…

The reductionist response (where the aim is to treat individual symptoms rather than the actual cause/s):

  • Doctors and Hospitals: Health workers might complain that not enough money is being spent on the health service. Doctors may demand more money and time to see each patient, and hospitals may demand more staff.
  • The Public: People might blame the government or say that there needs to be a crack-down on waste in the health service.
  • Politicians: Opposition MP’s will say they could sort out this problem with better care systems and larger injections of cash. Government MP’s will claim that it is inefficiencies in the surgeries and hospitals, or make some general remarks about it being a complex issue that requires a costly and gutless public enquiry.

The wholistic response (where the aim is to treat the actual cause/s and not the individual symptoms):

  • Doctors and Hospitals: All health workers are educated about the compelling mountain of research data that shows a processed, animal-based diet causes the vast majority of chronic non-communicable diseases while a whole food plant-based diet prevents and cures them. All trainee doctors are given substantial training in nutrition.
  • The Public: People visiting their doctors or hospitals with chronic non-communicable diseases are given primary dietary advice before any other pharmaceutical or surgical interventions are suggested.
  • Politicians: MP’s advocate for national and international campaigns to educate their citizens about the benefits of WFPB diet and the harm of the SAD (standard American diet).  Government health policy responds to the latest factual research findings on the causes of chronic non-communicable diseases and aims to prevent the problems in the first place rather than tinker with ineffective “solutions” once the problems have developed. All fast-food is highly taxed in the same way as is done with tobacco. Governments stop receiving any funding or contributions from Big Pharma (Merck etc) or Big Food (the likes of PepsiCo, Nestlé and Tyson Foods etc).

The fat is hitting the fan now. Before long the fan will stop turning and a solution will have to be found. Whether it will be a dietary solution in the first instance is questionable; but, in the end, truth will out and, if our species is able to continue, a whole food plant-based dietary solution will be accepted as the intelligent norm rather than the weird exception.


  1.   GPs can’t cope with ‘tidal wave’ of patients with multiple diseases  by Laura Donnelly, health editor. 19 APRIL 2018 []
  2.   Wholism vs Reductionism – Not Just a War of Words  []
  3.  Top Five Childhood Diseases on the Rise – GMO Science. []
  4.   Bethell CD, Kogan MD, Strickland BB, Schor EL, Robertson J, Newacheck PW. A national and state profile of leading health problems and health care quality for US children: key insurance disparities and across-state variations. Acad Pediatr. 2011 May-Jun;11(3 Suppl):S22-33  []
  5.   Lipman TH, Levitt Katz LE, Ratcliffe SJ, Murphy KM, Aguilar A, Rezvani I, Howe CJ, Fadia S, Suarez E. Increasing incidence of type 1 diabetes in youth: twenty years of the Philadelphia Pediatric Diabetes Registry. Diabetes Care. 2013 Jun;36(6):1597-603  []
  6.   Malaty HM, Fan X, Opekun AR, Thibodeaux C, Ferry GD.Rising incidence of inflammatory bowel disease among children: a 12-year study. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2010 Jan;50(1):27-31  []
  7.  Halfon N, Houtrow A, Larson K, Newacheck PW. The changing landscape of disability in childhood. Future Child. 2012 Spring; 22(1):13-42  []
  8. Tack GJ, Wieke H, Verbeek M, Schreurs W, Mulder CJJ. The Spectrum of Celiac Disease: Epidemiology, Clinical Aspects and Treatment. Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology 7, 204 (2010)  []
  9.  Childhood obesity and adult cardiovascular disease risk factors: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Amna Umer, George A. Kelley, Lesley E. Cottrell, Peter Giacobbi, Jr, Kim E. Innes, Christa L. Lilly. BMC Public Health. 2017; 17: 683. Published online 2017 Aug 29. doi: 10.1186/s12889-017-4691-z. PMCID: PMC5575877 [] []
  10.  The rising prevalence of obesity: part B—public health policy solutions. Maliha Agha, Riaz Agha. Int J Surg Oncol (N Y) 2017 Aug; 2(7): e19. Published online 2017 Jun 22. doi: 10.1097/IJ9.0000000000000019. PMCID: PMC5673155  []
  11. Professor Stephen MacMahon FMedSci. Principal Director, The George Institute for Global Health; Professor of Medicine and James Martin Professorial Fellow []
  12.   Prev Med. 2017 Apr;97:1-7. doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2016.12.044. Epub 2016 Dec 29. Vegetarian diet and all-cause mortality: Evidence from a large population-based Australian cohort – the 45 and Up Study. Mihrshahi S, Ding D, Gale J, Allman-Farinelli M, Banks E, Bauman AE []
  13.  Food groups and risk of all-cause mortality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies. Lukas Schwingshackl Carolina Schwedhelm Georg Hoffmann Anna-Maria Lampousi Sven Knüppel Khalid Iqbal Angela Bechthold Sabrina Schlesinger Heiner Boeing. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 105, Issue 6, 1 June 2017, Pages 1462–1473,  []
  14.  Low-Carbohydrate Diets and All-Cause Mortality: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies. Hiroshi Noto , Atsushi Goto, Tetsuro Tsujimoto, Mitsuhiko Noda. Published: January 25, 2013 []
  15.  Public Health Nutrition: 15(4), 663–672 doi:10.1017/S1368980011002151. A bean-free diet increases the risk of all-cause mortality among Taiwanese women: the role of the metabolic syndrome. Wan-Chi Chang*, Mark L Wahlqvist, Hsing-Yi Chang, Chih-Cheng Hsu, Meei-Shyuan Lee, Wuan-Szu Wang and Chao A Hsiung. Submitted 14 February 2011: Accepted 25 June 2011: First published online 7 September 2011  []
  16.  Heather Fields, Denise Millstine, Neera Agrwal, Lisa Marks. Is Meat Killing Us? The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, 2016; 116 (5): 296 DOI: 10.7556/jaoa.2016.059 []
  17. Mortality – Article on []
  18.  JAMA Intern Med. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2014 Jul 22. Published in final edited form as: JAMA Intern Med. 2013 Jul 22; 173(14): Fat intake after diagnosis and risk of lethal prostate cancer and all-cause mortality. Erin L. Richman, ScD, Stacey A. Kenfield, ScD, Jorge E. Chavarro, MD ScD, Meir J. Stampfer, MD DrPH, Edward L. Giovannucci, MD ScD, Walter C. Willett, MD DrPH, and June M. Chan, ScD  []
  19.  Do Vegetarians Live Longer Than Health Conscious Omnivores? Dr John McDoougall’s Health & Medical Center. []
  20.  Animal Protein Linked to Death. August 1, 2016. By Thomas Campbell, MD  []

The Lowdown on Low Fat vs Low Carb

Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine just published results from a 12-month study which aimed to identify which diet was the best – Low-carb or Low-fat. And the winner is…

Well, first, let’s see what were the basic questions (hypotheses) that the leader researcher, Professor Christopher Gardner  and his team were aiming to answer whether either of the following factors would dictate your success at losing weight:
  1. Genotype (that which predicts other factors such as your eye colour), or
  2. Baseline insulin secretion level (how much insulin your body produces to process glucose).

And the winner was?


No evidence was found for the existence of a genotype or a baseline insulin level that would clearly favour your chances of losing weight.

Both diets resulted in an overall weight loss:

  • An average 13 pounds / 5.8 kg weight loss within the 609 study subjects
  • Wide variability – some gained as much as 20 pounds/9 kg while others lost as much as 60 pounds / 27 kg.

More detail about the methodology used can be found here.

Conclusions from the Research

Professor Gardner says “We have all heard stories of a friend who went on one diet – it worked great – and then another friend tried the same diet, and it didn’t work at all. It is because we are all very different, and we are just starting to understand the reasons for this diversity. Maybe we should not be asking what is the best diet, but what is the best diet for whom?”
His takeaway lesson from this study was that we should eat:
  • less sugar,
  • less refined flour,
  • more wholefoods (e.g. “wheatberry salad or grass-fed beef “), and
  • as many vegetables as possible.
Future projects are likely to focus on questions related to:
  • the microbiome (the billions of bacteria in our guts),
  • epigenetics (looking at gene expression rather than potential changes to the genetic code itself)

He goes on to say “I’m hoping that we can come up with signatures of sorts…I feel like we owe it to Americans to be smarter than to just say ‘eat less.’ I still think there is an opportunity to discover some personalisation to it.”

In his own words:

What Others Say

In the Telegraph article that discussed this research, they drew the conclusion that “the research showed the key to losing weight was simply eating less.”

Tam Fry, from the National Obesity Forum, a UK campaign group, said: “The best diet in town is not a fad but much less of what you actually fancy – and stick to it.”

Some Thoughts

The findings of the research do not surprise me at all. And I applaud some of the conclusions that Professor Gardner draws – cutting down on (refined) sugars/flours, eating more (plant) wholefoods and vegetables – but there are some issues that require clarification.

  1. When weight loss is the only factor considered, other issues related to the overall health-promoting aspects of nutrition are marginalised. There appears to be no stated justification for Professor Gardner’s jump from talking about the results of the research (genotype and insulin secretion levels) to then recommending specific nutritional elements (less sugar, more wholefoods etc). If he is going to make these statements (especially if he includes “grass-fed beef” in the list of healthy wholefoods), then it would be useful to see some justification for such statements – and, as we would suspect, any justification would not come from a study that simply focuses on weight-loss without also measuring other health factors (cholesterol, triglycerides, mineral/vitamin balance, etc).
  2. Professor Gardner’s statement “It is because we are all very different, and we are just starting to understand the reasons for this diversity. Maybe we should not be asking what is the best diet, but what is the best diet for whom?” is somewhat misleading. It suggests that there is no evidence from large population studies (such as the largest of them all, The China Study) that optimal health appears to depend on diet, to a large extent, irrespective of the individual genetic variations within the members of that population. Indeed, the Stanford University research itself dismisses the primacy of genetics or “insulin secretion levels” as markers for future weight gain, let alone the uncharted, and more vital area, of overall health gain.
  3. There appears to be a misunderstanding in the media about what conclusions can be drawn from the study. Professor Gardner says “I feel like we owe it to Americans to be smarter than to just say ‘eat less.’ The Telegraph, on the other hand, states that “the research showed the key to losing weight was simply eating less.” No wonder the public get confused. And to add more confusion, Tam Fry (National Obesity Forum) states “The best diet in town is not a fad but much less of what you actually fancy – and stick to it.” Again, the implicit assumption here is that all foods are equal, all diets that do not include “moderation in all things” are fad diets, and, again, the mistaken implication that the research is suggesting we should simply eat less calories.
  4. Professor Gardner’s comment “Maybe we should not be asking what is the best diet, but what is the best diet for whom?” is, for me, a frankly shocking indication that he may not have looked at the wealth of research demonstrating that there is one diet that has been proven to be optimal for human health – a whole food plant-based diet, with minimal or no animal protein. I suspect that if his research subjects had been rural Chinese, Papua Highlanders, Central Africans or Tarahumara Indians from northern Mexico, then he would not have even bothered to do this research study since more or less everyone within those communities would already have been at their optimal body weight, largely regardless of genome or insulin secretion level.
  5. When such research projects are taken up by the media and then the public, they are thrown back, once again, on the mistaken belief that nutrition is simply a matter of the quantity and not quality of the calories being “eaten”. People do not eat calories. They eat food. And our bodies are made out of the food we eat.
  6. Yet again, this research focuses in a reductionist manner on genetic and individual biochemical responses in order to establish something so vitally important to our populations’ health and well-being. It still makes me recall Nero fiddling while Rome burned…

In my experience and that of my clients, even increasing the amount of calories consumed after making the transition to a WFPBD (whole food plant-based diet) from a standard diet (whether it be a meat-based, vegetarian or vegan diet), can cause excess fat to drop off the body. Just as a vitamin C supplement does not cause the same bodily responses as compared to the vitamin C derived from eating an apple, the calories “consumed” from eating animal foods (whether processed or unprocessed) have a very different effect on the body than those derived from eating plant foods (whether organic whole plants or even less-healthy processed plant-foods). And the added bonus from eating a wide variety of organic whole plants represents yet another step in the direction of optimal health from eating those less-healthy processed plant foods.

There is yet to be mainstream coverage and acceptance of the only diet proven to reverse heart disease and other chronic diseases. In the meantime, looking after your own diet can have a greater effect on your health, encourage other people’s appetite for dietary change, avoid further damage to other species, and help protect the environmental welfare of our land, sea and air.

 [qsm quiz=1]


Gardner CD, Trepanowski JF, Del Gobbo LC, Hauser ME, Rigdon J, Ioannidis JPA, Desai M, King AC. AMA. 2018 Feb 20;319(7):667-679. doi: 10.1001/jama.2018.0245. Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association With Genotype Pattern or Insulin Secretion: The DIETFITS Randomized Clinical Trial.


Wholism vs Reductionism – Not Just a War of Words


You may never have heard of these two terms, “wholism” and “reductionism”, but the war between them is not just a war of words, it’s a war of paradigms. One of these paradigms is unfortunately winning most of the battles, and the result is an escalating public health crisis.

First, let’s look at what I mean by “paradigm”. A good example is the difference between geocentric and heliocentric world views that came to a head around the 15th-16th centuries. Before the so-called Copernican Revolution (involving intellectual giants such as Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), the accepted and, for the most part, unchallenged paradigm was that the Sun and other planets revolved around the Earth, and the stars were all fixed in the heavens, just like it said in the Bible. Post-Revoltion, there was a slow but ultimately complete “paradigm shift” which meant that everyone now accepts that the Earth and other planets revolve around the Sun, and the stars are no longer just pin-pricks in some form of heavenly firmament.

Put simply, in terms of nutrition, wholism (a term adopted by Professor T Colin Campbell from the similar and better-known term “holism”) deals with whole diet and its effects on the whole person; whereas reductionism looks at specific elements of diet and their effect on specific parts of the person (like a specific gene for loving or hating Marmite).

The seemingly unstoppable increase in diet-related chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and obesity, is simply not being addressed by the ever more precise research being undertaken by scientists, whether they are chemists looking at a specific chemical that can target particular cellular behaviour or a geneticist looking at which gene is responsible for the onset of a particular disease.

Of course it’s necessary to narrow one’s visual field to a specific area of investigation when it is appropriate (for instance, using a microscope to distinguish which virus has infected a given tissue sample); but there is a general tendency nowadays within nutritional science to exclusively apply the microscope (metaphorically speaking) to every public health issue.

Let’s look at an example: A recent report revealed that half of our schoolchildren are now dangerously overweight or obese.

A reductionist response could be to look for and try and isolate the gene that causes obesity in children. £millions or even £billions could be poured into expensive genetic research to find this “needle in the haystack”.  Whereas a wholistic response could be to look at what societal changes have occurred that might account for this unwelcome change in the health of schoolchildren. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that there has been a significant change in the average diets that schoolchildren are now eating when compared to previous generations.

With the reductionist response, one could expect that years and even decades could pass without anything being discovered, and all the while more and more children are likely to become obese.

With the wholistic approach, a solution could theoretically be found very quickly – legislate to improve school meals, increase junk food taxes, ban advertising of unhealthy foods to children, and so forth. The chances are that obesity statistics would start to improve the more practical efforts were made to change laws, educate parents and improve children’s diets. And whilst it might appear that governments do make some moves in this direction, their efforts to implement substantial solutions end up being quasi-wholistic because they are generally hamstrung by the pressure imposed on them by Big Pharma, Big Medicine and Big Agriculture – and the majority of research funding, whether directly or indirectly (e.g. through universities and other institutions), greatly influences which research is most powerfully supported in government circles and reflected in the media to the public.

But even if simple dietary changes could significantly reduce childhood obesity, it would probably not make the reductionists happy. They would still want to delve down into minutiae and find a biological mechanism that could then be controlled somehow, most likely by a drug that could be patented and sold for profit. There is no profit to be made from people simply changing their diets. And there is certainly no profit to be made by pharmaceutical companies or medical organisations from a population full of healthy people.

But let’s say that the geneticists do find a gene that is strongly associated with childhood obesity. It may still take years or decades of research to transfer that information into a fully-tested and certified treatment, probably in the form of a drug.  And even if the obesity pill works in the trials they’ve undertaken, there is no guarantee that it will work within the general population, or that it will be free of serious side-effects only apparent years or decades later (remember Thalidomide?), or if it is too expensive for the majority of people to afford or indeed if the percentage improvement attributable to the drug would bear any comparison with the size of improvement made simply by changing dietary intake.

There is nothing wrong with geneticists exploring the fascinating world of genes, nor is there anything wrong with scientists trying to find what makes one person’s personality different from another’s, or any of the other intriguing questions that beg to be researched and answered by the curious and searching human mind.

What IS a problem, though, is when the ONLY approach to solving scientific problems, particularly those directly linked to public health, is an approach which ignores anything that is “fuzzy” and too…well, human! The funding for most of the scientific research that is undertaken nowadays is only available if there is a tangible and clear hope of achieving a binary, black and white result:

  • 1. A always precedes B.
  • 2. B always follows A.
  • 3. There is no C that could also cause B.

Human behaviour and particularly human nutrition on a population-wide level can never conform to this linear causal pattern. Indeed, even one single cell does not and arguably never can be analysed or understood fully by any amount of analysis – just as can be seen in quantum physics (where electrons can exist in two places at the same time – or cease to exist and reappear elsewhere in ways that can never conform to what we think of as causality), the more we delve into our biochemistry, the more we appreciate how much there is that we can never fully know. Just look at the following diagrammatic representation of just the partial metabolic processes involved in one single cell:

Professor T Colin Campbell explains (1.) the dilemma like this:

“The fact that each nutrient passes through such a maze of reaction pathways suggests that each nutrient also is likely to participate in multiple health and disease outcomes. The one nutrient/one disease relationship implied by reductionism, although widely popular, is simply incorrect. Every nutrient-like chemical that enters this complex system of reactions creates a rippling effect that may extend far into the pool of metabolism. And with every bite of food we eat, there are tens and probably hundreds of thousands of food chemicals entering this metabolism pool more or less simultaneously.”

Whilst it is understandable that the human mind is inquisitive and naturally wants to simplify complexity, is it really essential to map the inter-, intra- and extra-cellular labyrinthine world of the 100 trillion cells comprising the human body before we can identify and apply timely solutions to public health issues?

In any event, our cellular make-up is only one aspect of what constitutes the indefinably complex entity that is a human being. Can we truly ever expect to see a cellular or genetic “cog” that explains what it is to be a friend, a lover, a parent? Why we find beauty in a sunset?

Tackling childhood obesity head-on in the messy “real” world of human populations represents the sort of indeterminate complexity that does not attract large government or institutional funding. More effort goes into producing incomprehensibly complex charts such as the one above than goes into practical measures to help children live full and productive lives. This is not to say that scientists, governments and organisations do not care about the lives of real people – particularly real schoolchildren. Rather, my contention is that they are so wrapped up in doing things the way that things have been done for so long (“stuck inside the paradigm”) that they may, in part, genuinely believe that their way is the ONLY way to solve such public health crises.

This is why I believe it is appropriate to apply the term “paradigm” to the general outlook and approach that science and medicine has been immersed in for at least the past 50 years – probably since the joint effects of two discoveries: the so-called completed list of vitamins and the structure of DNA.  It is also the reason why incredibly convincing population studies, such as The China Study, come under attack from reductionist thinkers. They attack such wide-scale population studies because there is no single causal link demonstrated. This is even the case when the study identifies significant differences in health markers (e.g. cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes) between those Chinese populations eating the traditional plant-based diets and those Chinese populations that have adopted the Standard American Diet (SAD).

There is good reason for this lack of indisputable causality: and the reason is that it is simply impossible to prove a single causal link between health and diet when, as Professor Campbell indicated above, no single nutritional input ever causes just one single biochemical response. But such linear responses are just what scientists have habitually expected to discover when the overriding world-view they have been exposed to all their academic and professional lives aims to reduce all complexity down to minute and simple mechanics.

You will have heard the saying “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. Intuitively obvious, but possibly not so in the majority of research laboratories around the world.

The assumption that it should be possible to find such a causal link is based on a mechanistic reductionist ideal of the Universe. The likes of Ray Kurtzweil et al consider that one day we will be able to understand everything about ourselves – biology, emotions, personality – by drilling down deeper and deeper, smaller and smaller into the world of micro and nano particles until we find all the little “cogs” and see how they are all connected. We will then be able to predict all events in the “macro world” and reproduce them in better ways with far more durable materials than human flesh and blood.

Of course we don’t want to return to an age of religion and mysticism, where all events were caused by unknown and unknowable forces, spirits and demons. Where everything in biology and personality could be accounted for by the four humours – blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm! We all enjoy huge benefits from the application of reductionist approaches to finding causes and cures for TB and smallpox, and without this approach doctors might still be delivering babies with unwashed hands after having chopped up cadavers or been to the toilet, or both.

Also, I can see how a reductionist approach can be very attractive. It’s neat and orderly and avoids that great enemy of the reductionist thinker, namely, uncertainty.

But I propose that the answer to childhood obesity is both complex and simple.

It’s simple because all it requires is that we feed our children the natural diet for our species (ideally consisting completely or in the main part of whole plant foods), while ensuring that they get some regular exercise.

It’s complex because WE – our biochemistry, our personalities, our societies – ARE complex.

But effective and timely solutions to childhood obesity and many other public health crises are much more likely to be found with the help of two eyes rather than the help of a two million pound electron microscope.

Ample evidence already points to dietary change being the major factor needed in order to solve this escalating health problem. So much evidence, indeed, that I have not even bothered to list it in this article. Just scan through the databases of the NCBI or NIHR to see that sufficient research already links obesity to diet. But in spite of this, the main thrust of government and medical policy derives from what is called “Gold Standard” research, where the majority of research funding (and resultant credibility) is assigned to randomised controlled trials (RCT’s) that control all potential extraneous biases. And, clearly, you cannot do with when dealing with the nutritional and behavioural diversity that exists in the wider world of society as a whole.

This situation can be further explained by the analogy of an elephant in a room along with 60,000 blind scientists who are each responsible for describing one individual facet in minute detail. They can talk at length about the life-cycle of one of the thousands of species of bacteria colonising a crack between two toes, or churn out publications on the chemical components of a particular pigment within a hair from its tail. Yes, it’s true that they become incredibly expert in their own field of research, but it takes just one non-visually impaired child running into the room to be able to announce that there’s a bleedin’ great elephant standing there!

And to the surprise of the child, these 60,000 blind researchers with one voice ask “what’s an elephant?”

To those who have their eyes open to the whole picture, they can see that our example of childhood obesity is but one of the many chronic health conditions clearly caused by diet, and it’s always the same diet, the one that contains far too much animal protein, saturated fats, salt, sugar and processed junk, and far too little whole plant foods.

Diet is a “zero-sum” affair. Whenever one unhealthy food item goes into your mouth it means that another more healthy food item didn’t. And it is the cumulative effect of this, meal after meal, day after day, year after year that leads inexorably to the near-epidemic diet-related health issues that are starting to bring our hospitals to a standstill.

A fish is hooked, thrown onto land, flops around for a bit in the air and then escapes back into the water. Eager to tell his fishy buddies about his experience, he starts talking to them about his time out of the water. “What’s water?” they all ask, looking at him as though he’s out of his scaly mind. When water is all that you know, there is no word for it…

You may enjoy another view of this issue by Dr. Michael Greger…


  1. Campbell, T. Colin. Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition (p. 97). BenBella Books, Inc.. Kindle Edition.