Saturday, September 11, 2010

Dogen Zenji on Nutritionism

Dogen Zenji was the man who brought the Soto lineage of Zen Buddhism to Japan. He was a prolific writer, and many of his texts are respected both inside and outside the Soto Zen community. Last week, my Zen group was discussing the Genjo Koan, one of his works that is frequently used as a chant. Here's an excerpt. It may seem cryptic but bear with me:
...when you sail out in a boat to the middle of an ocean where no land is in sight, and view the four directions, the ocean looks circular, and does not look any other way. But the ocean is neither round or square; its features are infinite in variety... It only look circular as far as you can see at that time. All things are like this.

Though there are many features in the dusty world and the world beyond conditions, you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach. In order to learn the nature of the myriad things, you must know that although they may look round or square, the other features of oceans and mountains are infinite in variety; whole worlds are there. It is so not only around you, but also directly beneath your feet, or in a drop of water.

What Dogen meant, among other things, is that the world is much more complex than what our conscious minds can perceive or understand. It was true in the 13th century, and it's still true today, despite our greatly expanded understanding of the natural world.

We can apply this principle to nutrition. For example, what is red palm oil? Two hundred years ago, perhaps we only knew a few basic facts about it. It's a fat, it's red, it comes from an African palm fruit and it has a particular melting point and flavor. Then we learned about vitamins, so we knew it contained vitamin E, carotenes (provitamin A), and vitamin K. Then fatty acid composition, so we found out it's mostly palmitic and oleic acids. Now we know red palm oil contains an array of polyphenols, sterols, coenzyme Q10 and many other non-essential constituents. We don't know much about the biological effects of most of these substances, particularly in combination with one another.

Add to that the fact that every batch of red palm oil is different, due to strain, terroir, processing, storage, et cetera. We know what the concept "red palm oil" means, roughly, but the details are infinitely complex. Now feed it to a human, who is not only incredibly complex himself, but genetically and epigenetically unique. How can we possibly guess the outcome of this encounter based on the chemical composition of red palm oil? That's essentially what nutritionism attempts to do.

To be fair, nutritionism does work sometimes. For example, we can pretty well guess that a handful of wild almonds containing a lot of cyanide won't be healthy to eat, due at least in part to the cyanide. But outside extreme examples like this, we're in a gray zone that needs to be informed by empirical observation. In other words, what happens when the person in question actually eats the red palm oil? What happened when a large group of people in West Africa ate red palm oil for thousands of years? Those questions are the reason why I'm so interested in understanding the lives of healthy non-industrial cultures.

I'm not criticizing reductionist science or controlled experiments (which I perform myself); I just think they need to be kept in context. I believe they should be interpreted within the framework of more basic empirical observations*.

One of the most important aspects of scientific maturity is learning to accept and manage uncertainty and your own ignorance. Some things are more certain than others, but most aren't set in stone. I think Dogen would tell us to be wary of nutritionism, and other forms of overconfidence.

* Wikipedia's definition of empirical: "information gained by means of observation, experience, or experiment." As opposed to inferences made from experiments not directly related to the question at hand.


Aaron Blaisdell said...

Very nice reminder. Have you read Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan? Similar themes developed there.

Chris Masterjohn said...

Great post Stephan! When I interviewed for my program, the department head told me he always tells his PhDs when they graduate never to brag about what they know, but to brag about how little they know.


John said...

Hi Stephan,

"But outside extreme examples like this, we're in a gray zone that needs to be informed by empirical observation."

This is a great point, and it is such a shame that the public knowledge of healthy non-industrialized cultures is so little.

How about this for empirical evidence: Americans got fatter as their diets are got "healthier."

. said...

The problem with the ideology of mainstream nutritionism is that it relies on the dictatorship of nutrients, and lacks the evolutionary paradigm. Tradicional/ancestral foods were put to a secondary role. In my opinion, nutritionism has done more harm than good to human eating. Nutritionism is the only way food lobies can promote modern, processed junk-foods above real food. The modern comparisions of butter and margarine, as if they were comparable at all, are a good example of how this reductionist view is a menace to real food. The "state of the art" of mainstream nutritionism are the food guide pyramids, which we all know how useful they are. Here is an article of Dr. Gyorgy Scrinis discussing these problems:

Walter said...

Interesting coincidence (I don't believe in synchronicity) I got Ration Zen - the Mind of Dogen Zenji by Thomas Cleary out of the library today.

Jeanne Shepard said...

Walter, I'd like to check that book out too, but as a neophyte, I'm sure it's over my head.

Someone posted the following quotation on "Free the Animal" and I printed it and put it up in my kitchen:

"Knowledge increases when I am proven wrong."

EL 66K said...

Talking about the perils of nutrtionism, what is your stance on genetically modified foods? Is there good data for the gm soy and corn in the market?

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Aaron,

I haven't read it, but maybe I should.

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi EL 66K,

My stance is that they're unnecessary for a country with good food security like the US. At the very least, they should be studied more and established as reasonably safe before they're added indiscriminately to the food market.

Walter said...

@ Jeanne Shepard

I'll let you know after I've read it, but I don't think that neophyte status should prevent you from getting something out of the book. I'm hardly an expert on Zen.

Thanks for sharing the quote from Free the Animal. Its one of my "usual suspects" i.e. a blog I visit regularly, but I missed that quote. Its a good one.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your post. The more I learn about nutrition and how studies are conducted the more questions I have. Often a study will say: eating this will be good for xxx (which was studied in the study) but they fail to mention y and z (of course) which weren't studied. I do like the book Encyclopedia or Healing Foods because at least it elaborates a little. But, of course, it too is limited by the what we know and what we don't know. I often feel like we are still in the dark ages in terms of nutritions impact on health.

Blake said...

I didn't realize that you sat with a zen group. Right on.

Great post.

SamAbroad said...

That is the peril of science unfortunately

Science may be described as the art of systematic over-simplification.
Karl Popper

gibby1979 said...

Stephen, and Chris
You guys sound like you got a really good education into what science is. I'm graduating with my PhD and the truth is that I've observed very much the opposite of this type of thinking. I also have observed that the average PhD student is made to specialize so to keep up the productivity needed to be successful that we end up being almost ignorant.
I like to say that my desire to get an education has gotten in the way of getting my degree. I've spent a lot of time learning, it's interfered with my productivity. I guess this is what's pushing me towards being a high school science teacher and away from doing a post doc. This observation is also somewhat exaggerated by me being in the bioorganic chemistry field.

Todd Hargrove said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Todd Hargrove said...

I think you are talking about what Dan Dennett cals "greedy reductionism." From Wikipedia: "Whereas "good" reductionism means explaining a thing in terms of what it reduces to (for example, its parts and their interactions), greedy reductionism is when "in their eagerness for a bargain, in their zeal to explain too much too fast, scientists and philosophers[...] underestimate the complexities, trying to skip whole layers or levels of theory in their rush to fasten everything securely and neatly to the foundation."

Looking at healthy cultures and trying to emulate their lifestyle is also reductionistic, but not necessarily greedy. Just as nutritionistic scientists look at palm oil and try to decide which of its nutrient accounts for its its effects on health, one looking at a healthy culture has to pick and choose what elements of the lifestyle are the essential reasons for the health of the people. You can't holistically copy the whole lifestyle.

Jeanne Shepard said...

i do zazen at home, but am not currently in a Zen group.
I miss it.

Walter said...

@ Jeanne Shepard
Looks like the only part of the book I'm going to understand is the introduction. I think this might be the second time I've attempted to read it. I'm really not into Zen though, so your mileage may vary (and be better). Taoism resonates more with me and I really haven't gotten much out of any Taoist books beyond the Tao De Ching.

Unknown said...

Hi Stephan,

apologies for OT, but I wanted to make you aware of this paper and get your take on it --

Low Carb Diet Rich in Animal Fat and Protein Increases Risk of Death


Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Will,

I looked over the paper and the accompanying editorial. I didn't write about it because I don't think the study tells us much if anything. First of all, virtually none of the people they studied were on low-carb diets. This was not a randomized trial of LC diets, it was simply a rehashing of data from the Nurse's Health study. They were all eating high-to-moderate carb diets.

Second, their methods of measuring meat intake were extremely inaccurate, as Chris Masterjohn pointed out. Third, as in most studies of this kind, people who ate meat also smoked more, exercised less, etc. They mathematically "controlled" for the factors they measured, but you can't control for all the little unmeasured things a health-conscious person does. So I think the study is potentially susceptible to healthy user bias.

The study is just very difficult to interpret in my opinion. I don't dispute that people who said they ate the most meat died the most. But it's not clear if the meat itself was the cause, or even if they were actually eating more meat. The editorial that accompanied the paper made some of these same points, although I don't recall them pointing out the inaccuracy of the food frequency questionnaire.

I find it sad that this study is being used to promote the idea that meat is unhealthy. If eating a lot of meat is unhealthy, then so be it, but this study certainly hasn't given the hypothesis any credible support.

Unknown said...

Thanks Stephen,
I'm checking out Chris & Denise's posts...

Fredrik Gyllensten said...

Good post Stephan.

"Knowledge is recognizing what you know and what you don't." - Confucius

Anonymous said...

Great post! It's worth noting that we try to dissect our economy in a similar way to no avail. As a previous commenter mentioned, The Black Swan explores this in great depth.

On a side note, do you have any books you would recommend about Zen?

Anonymous said...

I used to practice Zen meditation and I've been feeling a pull back to it. It was nice when I went to a zendo and sat with others just being present to the full bloom of each moment. Jon Kabat-Zinn writes beautifully about this in his book "Where You Go There You Are."

I've read excerpts from Dogen and I think you applied his words well to nutritionism.

@Todd Hargrove -I like Dan Dennet and those are great words on greedy reductionism. I think the term greedy applies very well to nutritionism when we take into account how much economic influence there is with some of these modern nutritional studies. Economic greed is an external influence while the intellectual greed Dennet describes is usually an internal influence from the observer on what's being studied.

Unknown said...

*favorited. It's this way of thinking that escapes many scientists