The butterfly effect of food

Biochemistry, the classical scientific approach to studying the effects of food, has given society a tremendous amount of information on nutrition. However, biochemistry alone is not sufficient to understand the effects of food on the body as it focuses mainly on individual nutrients isolated from the whole. As each of us is part of an interrelated whole of family and community, so is every other element in nature. That includes the nutrients in food.

For a long time, I have espoused the importance of using the whole food instead of focusing on individual and separate nutrients. Whole foods have different effects from individual nutrients, as confirmed by studies of beta-carotene and other antioxidants on smokers’ health. While separate nutrients appeared unhelpful and even counterproductive, whole foods with the very same nutrients gave positive results (Alt Med Rev, 2002; 7: 370-88).

While traditional medicines from other cultures such as Chinese medicine and Ayurveda have clear dietary philosophies, I could find no clearly expressed ‘philosophy of nutrition’ based on the scientific approach. Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, expressed the problem most cogently: ‘In physics, there are theoretical physics and applied physics. There is very little ‘theoretical’ in other fields, especially biology, as molecular biology seems to have no need of theoretical predictions as guides for experiments. Why not? This is a problem, in my view, as it takes an assumed theory to be the final truth arbiter.’

What, then, is the ‘assumed theory’ of nutrition? The chemistry of biology is the basis, but there is no expressed theoretical biochemistry. Living things are treated exactly the same as inanimate objects, even though they are in profound ways fundamentally different. For my doctorate, I explored other fields, such as systems theory, chaos theory, complexity theory and aspects of quantum physics.

Systems theory is very clear: the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Theoreticians such as Ervin Laszlo and Ilya Prigogine have laid a strong foundation for this field, which should, in my estimation, serve as the bedrock on which any study of living things – from amoebas to ecosystems – should rest.

Complexity theory is an expansion of systems theory. It looks at questions of wholism: worldwide politics, economic markets, ecosystems, social systems, and body systems such as the brain, mind and immune system (Waldrop M, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1992). This model shows that wholes have what are called ‘emergent properties’ that are not found at the level of the individual components. Thus, wetness is a property of water, but not of either oxygen or hydrogen, which are both gases.

Clearly, both systems and complexity theories need to be part of the theoretical framework that supports a wholistic view of nutrition: carrots are more than an aggregate of carbohydrates, beta-carotene, vitamin C and water, and their effect on health goes beyond the effects of their individual nutrients.

Chaos theory is the study of how order develops out of complex systems. It studies the behaviour of complex moving systems over time. Systems such as the weather, traffic patterns and even hospital personnel activities have been studied in this framework. Particularly fascinating is one of the main points of chaos theory – what has been called ‘sensitive dependence on initial conditions’. That means that if, at the beginning of a moving system there is a very small change in the equations, the result further down the line can be unexpected and huge, out of all proportion to the first minute shift, the well-known ‘butterfly effect’, the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in Peking can eventually trigger a storm in New York (Gleick J, Chaos: Making a New Science, NY: Penguin Books, 1987). This is especially applicable to nutritional events such as infant-feeding, where there is a difference between breast- and bottlefeeding at the beginning of life, which will then have effects that are felt throughout life, and dietary changes to improve health.

Two concepts in quantum physics are also applicable to nutrition. One is the idea that light can be both a particle and a wave (Jones RS, Physics for the Rest of Us, NY: Barnes & Noble Books, 1999). As visible light is part of the electromagnetic spectrum, it follows that everything else is also both particle and wave, including the human body and food. Food is studied as particles (in biochemistry) or as waves (in Chinese medicine in terms of the five flavours).

The particle-wave duality gives rise to complementarity, which says that in complementary sets of opposites, both are valid and neither can be eliminated. In addition, a person can study and see one, or study and see the other, but never both opposites at the same time. The well-known trompe l’oeil picture of the profiles/vase illustrates this perfectly: one can see profiles, or one can see the vase, but never both simultaneously. The idea of complementary opposites is classically expressed by the yin- yang theory of Chinese medicine.

To truly have a wholistic nutrition, we need to study how different foods, both whole and refined or fragmented, affect various levels of the human body-mind (physical, mental, emotional and spiritual). The theoretical framework that legitimises it needs to rest on biochemistry as well as on systems theory, chaos theory, complexity theory and quantum physics. Food, like all the rest of our lives, needs a new science.
Annemarie Colbin, PhD

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Written by What Doctors Don't Tell You

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