Eons ago the biblical God instructed Adam and Eve, his two fledgling humans, in one of the earliest recorded food injunctions in all of western history — don’t eat the apple. This fateful nutrition rule was unequivocal and came straight from the heavens. A few millenna later, the apple has evolved from vilified to glorified. One of the greatest cities on Earth is called “the Big Apple.” One of our most inventive computer companies is Apple computer. And the quintessential nugget of medical-nutritional wisdom is “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” This is clearly the single greatest comeback of any fruit ever recorded.
Certainly, it points to one of the more interesting qualities about the nutrition profession—that our most hallowed food and dietary assertions tend to have a glorious but brief shelf life. Consider, for example, that over a hundred years ago the reigning nutritional prescription for the majority of our medical ailments was to eat more meat. If you perchance had the opportunity to converse with the experts of the past about the merits of oat bran, they wouldn’t take you seriously. Oat bran was considered a fine dietary staple indeed, but only for farm animals. In the 1970s and 80s, meat lost some of its luster as its downside was exposed, yet now, with high protein/low carbohydrate diets in vogue, the sacred cow is once again making a surge towards the head of the herd.
So let’s just describe the field of nutrition as it simply is:
Fresh, young, exciting, chaotic, uncertain, and guaranteed to evolve and change.
If you’re looking for a unified voice from the community of experts as to the one true clinically and experimentally validated perfect way for all humans to eat, expect to be disappointed. This field is probably not for you. But if you’re the type who fancies the wild west, or doesn’t mind the ways that evolution pokes and prods us into the unknown, this is assuredly the territory where you’ll want to pitch your tent.
We’ve come a long way since the apple. Nowadays, the Nutrition Gods are many, their tastes seemingly beyond number, and their personalities tend to be a bit fickle. They sit before an elaborate banquet somewhere on Mt. Olympus, festive, boisterous and self assured, each espousing the rightful way to eat, each telling a uniquely different dietary tale, and interestingly enough, each with something very valuable to say. But amidst all the rich and raucous cacophony of nutritional crossfire, is any one of us down here listening? Do the Nutrition Deities deem our offerings worthy? Have we mortals earned the right to drink from their wisdom, and to sit at the table of good health and bounty?
Perhaps it’s time to reflect upon the science of eating. What do we know? What do we believe? How did we get here? Is there a way we can reconcile the vast amounts of conflicting information? And what are the lessons waiting to be learned, the kind that we can smile back on some day and say that we played our part in transforming the health of a nation, or a world?
SOME HISTORY: FROM NOURISHMENT TO NUTRITION
According to the science historian Morris Berman, PhD, the western world before the scientific revolution was an “enchanted” one. Nature was alive, events endowed with magical meaning, and people felt a sense of purpose in the scheme of things. They were not particularly interested in how things worked because they were content to know why they worked. And the why of things was “God,” divine immanence in everything. To this end, in medieval Europe, how food worked in the body was not a hot topic. It was simply given in the order of things. Aside from folk-medicine-value ascribed to herbs and some staple foods, little hygienic value was associated with diet. Europeans had trouble getting enough to eat, and such was the state of nutritional wisdom of the day—you need “enough.” Even in colonial America it was assumed that all foods had the same nutritive value—a single “universal aliment” that helped the body grow and kept it warm and working.
Enter the scientific revolution. With the likes of Rene Descartes, Isaac Newton, Galilei Galileo, and Francis Bacon at the helm, the archaic view of the Europeans was turned inside out. Through a massive program of experimentation, abstraction, and measurement, the universe was now revealed to be a huge machine. And by properly employing the scientific method, one could figure out its’ inner workings. To this end, the first great nutritional breakthrough occurred in France, 1680.
The scientist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier was struck with the interesting notion to measure the amount of weight lost through perspiration. Discovering this weight to consist of carbon dioxide and water, Lavoisier made a bold and daring scientific assertion: He proclaimed life to be a chemical process. And staying true to the newly inaugurated worldview of the body as machine, if we have a chemical combustion taking place, then somewhere, somehow, we must have a fuel. In a process of elimination requiring the most rigorous scientific investigation of his day, Lavoisier soon arrived at the unmistakable choice for this fuel:
Further groundwork was laid by Hermann Ludwig von Helmholz and Julius Robert von Mayer in proving out the combustive nature of the human bio-machine. By applying Newtonian concepts such as the conservation of energy to the body, caloric theory soon emerged. Nutrition was now seen as a hard science, on the order of physics. Next up were the Germans Karl Voit and Justus von Liebig who broke new ground by applying chemical thinking to food. The body was quite suddenly a watery milieu for the breakdown and dispersion of macromolecules—proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Of course, if we have macromolecules, then it logically follows we must have micro ones as well. And indeed, the last 150 years of nutrition research has been a long, deep dive into the cellular realms of both body and food in an effort to uncover the warp and woof of the most basic and elemental aspects of nutrition- minerals, vitamins, enzymes, amino and fatty acids, and a long list of ancillary bio-substances.
In short, we have charged up the hill with marching orders assuring us that if the body is a physiochemical factory, just as Lavoisier and friends said it was, then it stands to reason that the more we learn about the underlying micro- processes of the body and the more nutrients we discover, the more we will know about nourishment. And this is where we stand today—nutritional science has a blueprint and is essentially “filling in the blanks.”
We see this approach reflected in our fascination with the latest “nutrients du jour”—antioxidants, tocotrienols, COX-2 inhibitors, glycosaminoglycans… and with our illuminations on the importance of news-breaking biologic forces such as inflammation, oxidative stress, and intestinal permeability. Depending on which way the winds of publicity blow, we shift our official dietary doctrines—from butter to margarine and back to butter again, from wine is bad to wine is good to maybe it’s bad again, from full-fat to low-fat to no-fat to healthy-fat, and the list goes on. To the confusion of our truth seeking public, we the experts ongoingly tinker with their food choices, the components of said food, and the robust menu of supplements they should or shouldn’t be taking as a way to make us all fabulously long-lived.
But something is missing.
On the road home from the scientific revolution and our well-earned advances in health and the technology of eating, we seem to have stopped short down a collective dietary dead-end. Both the young and old of our nation are increasingly and alarmingly obese. Admonitions to “eat less and exercise more” have clearly failed. No, we’re not country of lazy or low willpower Americans. Statistically, we’re one of the most overworked nations on Earth. We didn’t get here by watching TV. For those who have endeavored to notice, the sheer amount and frequency of nutrition-linked diseases has blown through the roof. Insulin resistance is perhaps the crowning testament to a culture whose food quality is poor, whose cuisine is “fast,” and whose level of stress is high. Eating disorders and body image distortions are a silent epidemic. Many people casually proclaim that they know what to eat, they know what’s good for them, but they just don’t do it. And countless others are over-burdened with a “high-fact” diet. What’s more, our cuisine has de-evolved to mass-produced, nutrient depleted, xenotoxic fare. Our nation eats on the run, and has lost its’ connection to relaxed and pleasured eating. We no longer dine. We feed.
In short, we’ve removed “nourishment” from “nutrition.” In our valiant efforts to create a science of eating, we’ve lost a bit of soul. We’ve forgotten that health is given in the way a food is grown, how the soil is tended, who picks it, the love with which it’s prepared and served, the company who surrounds us when we eat, the ambiance, the mood, the music, pleasure, touch, textures, colors… Assessing the nutritive value of a food by measuring the quantity of its nutrients is like judging a great work of art by analyzing the pigments in the paint. In removing nourishment from nutrition we’ve lost something that though invisible, is never-the-less essential for cellular health and replenishment. In hindsight, perhaps we needed to go down this road to forge the beginnings of a science of eating. Our enchanted and archaic worldview before the Renaissance was simply not enough. But in order to revivify nutritional science and true its course, nourishment needs to be invited back to the table.
The good news is that the fated marriage of the science of nutrition with the soul of eating is already in its courtship phase. A useful way to observe this flirtation in action, and to intuit where this union may be going is to visit with two of the more famous stomachs in medical history.
The first stomach worthy of our attention belonged to a Canadian, Alexis St. Martin, a young trapper and voyageur who worked near the Great Lakes region. In 1822, St. Martin, then 19 years of age, suffered an accidental gunshot wound when a nearby musket fell and discharged, the bullet piercing his abdomen. The resulting gastric fistula—an opening of the stomach organ onto the abdominal wall—left his precious innards protruding from his rib cage. As the fates would have it, Dr. William Beaumont, a capable U.S. army surgeon was stationed nearby. Under challenging frontier conditions, Dr. Beaumont successfully stuffed St. Martins organs back where they belonged, and helped nurse him to such fine health that he lived to be 83.
One notable complication though: The large hole in St. Martins’ left side and in his stomach never closed. Whenever a well-placed bandage was removed from the wound, his previous meal would literally spill out. In fact, one could see directly into St. Martins’ stomach—its blood flow, its acid production, its muscular churning, its ever changing mucosal lining—all its wondrous digestive activities. Over the next 11 years Dr. Beaumont designed a series of historic experiments, most notably inserting carefully knit silk pouches containing a variety of food substances into St. Martins’ stomach to observe first- hand the digestive process. Dr. Beaumont also noted how acid production and mucosal blood flow would dramatically alter whenever his subject became angry, afraid, or irritated at the experimental methods of his inquisitive doctor. Indeed, it was Beaumont’s stomach, as historians have rewarded him with honorary ownership, that helped inaugurate the western worldview of digestive science.
Our second stomach of great distinction heralds from the far east and dates back perhaps 2,500 years. It belonged to the Yellow Emperor of China. The Yellow Emperor is considered a mythical figure by many historians, yet popular folklore credits him with being the father of Chinese medicine and the author of the classic ancient text on healing, The Nei Ching. Amongst the Emperors’ many wondrous talents, legend has it that he was born with a transparent stomach. This unique anatomical gift enabled him to eat anything imaginable and observe its’ precise effects on the body. He could thus determine the energetic quality of each food, the organ system it nourished, and the effects of any ingestible on the temperament of the eater.
Unlike Dr. Beaumont though, the Yellow Emperor was doing more than merely looking at food in a physical stomach— he was gazing at the mysteries of the cosmos. For according to Chinese medicine, human beings are best understood as micro- cosmic inhabitants of a greater cosmic whole. To study the body is to probe the workings of the universe and the non-physical forces that permeate creation. By peering through his abdominal window, the Yellow Emperor could sightsee into a body innervat ed by subtle energy meridians, the universal forces of Yin and Yang, and the archetypal elements of fire, earth, metal, water and wood. The Yellow Emperors’ stomach then, was an “energy” stomach. In comparison, Beaumont’s stomach was a “scientific” one, a portal into a world of digestive juices, blood flow, and the mechanical breakdown of food. This stomach inhabited a universe described by observable phenomena and reproducible measurements, where chemical elements are the building blocks of creation rather than archetypal ones.
The history and current state of affairs in nutrition is aptly symbolized in these two stomachs, for they represent two distinct bodies of knowledge that evolved separately, but have recently mated and given birth to a new and not yet mature understanding of eating. In this fresh approach, it’s not only the vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients that have nutritional value. We are literally and scientifically nourished by taste, aroma, the energetics of a food—its history, its personality, its artistry, and its unique containment of terrestrial and cosmic forces. Indeed, the nutritional value of a food is not only given in its’ chemical components, but is equally given in who we are as eaters—our level of stress or relaxation, our experience of plea- sure, our thoughts, feelings, the personal story we live by, and even our relation to the Divine. Ready or not, we are living in a time where we are witnesses to the merging of the science of nutrition with the soul of eating. And like Clark Kent and Superman, the two are really one and the same.
Excerpted from a guest editorial I wrote for the unique and prestigious research journal – Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine.
Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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