The New Science of Nutrition – Part Two

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by Andrew Shao, Ph.D., vice president, Global Government Affairs, Herbalife Nutrition
December 08, 2016

At the annual Council for Responsible Nutrition International scientific workshop in Hamburg, Germany, I recently gave the opening presentation, “From reductionism to holism: evolution of nutrition science” to scientists, regulators and officials from around the world. Following is part two of some of the highlights from the presentation. Find Part One of the post here.

The Misguided Search for the “Magic Bullet”

In the 1980s and 1990s, nutrition science entered into an era during which the “magic bullet” was sought using a reductionist approach. Nutrients were included in drug-like randomized controlled trials, the most notable were the studies in which vitamin E and/or beta-carotene were given to lifelong smokers or asbestos workers, with the ill-conceived hypothesis that these nutrients could reverse decades of smoking or asbestos exposure. In an effort to uncover the magic bullet, scientists inappropriately studied nutrients in a drug-like context. Unlike drugs, nutrients don’t function in isolation and have beneficial effects on multiple tissues and organ systems; a narrow focus on a single or “primary” outcome measure is not practical and does not fit the nutritional context.

Perpetuated by a reductionist approach on single macro and micronutrients, scientists have similarly spent countless resources satisfying the demand for the nutrition “villain” and “hero.” “Heroes” include antioxidants, fiber, protein, probiotics, organic and all natural while the maligned “villains” include saturated fat, refined carbohydrates, trans fat, salt, sugar and GMO. In studying the effects of nutrients in isolation, premature conclusions have been reached, resulting in the inevitable “flip-flopping” on whether particular nutrients are beneficial or harmful. This, in turn, has led to enormous consumer confusion and frustration. The problem with this reductionist approach is that, in emphasizing specific nutrients, it fails to take into account that food components interact in complex ways to give rise to emergent properties of diets that are not explicable at the level of individual chemical parts.7

The New Nutrition Science

Nutrition science has now evolved to a field that integrates the science of a variety of disciplines, including biology, physiology, sociology, economics, politics and environment8. Researchers are now calling for the consideration of environmental sustainability when addressing nutrition questions of public health significance9.

A systems approach is now being advocated as well. By looking beyond the symptoms of the problem or the events that resulted from a problem, a systems approach can help to identify common causal factors underlying the otherwise seemingly opposite problems of malnutrition and obesity, which are occurring with more regularity around the world.

Technology and Testing Advances

Technology now allows use of “small data” at the individual level to drive personalized diets.10 Handheld devices can help consumers understand their own nutrient status. And biomarkers of nutrition status are replacing intake assessment as the basis for identifying dietary gaps. These advancements are part of the evolution from linking health benefits to specific nutrients at specific doses to understanding the broader dietary landscape that impacts health including food policy, food choices, culture, environment, dietary patterns, social/psychological factors, home/workplace/school and economy.


Closing Thoughts

Despite a number of challenges and setbacks, nutrition science has evolved significantly over time (and will continue). The scientific focus of nutrition has narrowed with a reductionist approach and subsequently now expanded to be more holistic (concerned with complete systems). It is now recognized that the study of nutrition involves more than the biology of nutrients, but encompasses the integration of other scientific disciplines, including social, political and environmental sciences. This holistic view of nutrition, lifestyle and social factors is consistent with our global nutrition philosophy. Nutrition recommendations and policy need to continue to evolve in parallel with advances in science and technology and public health challenges in order to provide solutions to contemporary public health challenges.

7Downey M. 2015. The putative 104 causes of obesity update. Downey Obes. Rep.
8Allison et al. Fontiers in Nutrition. Sept 2015, Vol 2(26)
9Cannon and Leitzmann Public Health Nutrition: 8(6A), 673–694
10Hardcastle et al. Nutrients 2015, 7, 8712–8715

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