“Different men may be differently affected by the same object, and the same man may be differently affected at different times by the same object.” — Spinoza, Ethics, Part 3, Proposition 51.
Over the course of the last century, humanity has borne witness to an exceptional prosperity in all scientific inquiry. The desire to understand our universe in a rigorous and objective way — a goal once limited to the natural sciences — has since expanded to the social sciences and humanities. Modern research, in all its diversity, seeks to formulate universal truths that explain the jumble of seemingly unrelated phenomena occurring all around us. Natural sciences, such as physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics try to understand the physical universe, searching for fundamental laws governing the interactions of inanimate objects. Social sciences like psychology, sociology, economics, politics and history attempt to apply the same rigor to understand fundamental principles underlying human interaction in society. While the fields of medicine, nutrition and athletics combine findings from both the social and physical sciences in order to improve our physical capabilities and maximize our health. All of these different scientific disciplines ask different questions and require different standards of proof for their answers, but they share a common purpose: to define a set of general principles that explain, predict and control our lives and the world around us more effectively.
This purpose is a worthy one, but it has its problems. What happens when two studies present conflicting conclusions? Nowhere does this clash happen more frequently than in the field of nutrition where new fad diets are constantly introduced, refuting previous ones and claiming to hold the secret to health. Just in the last few years, we’ve heard about the Paleo diet, the gluten-free diet, the raw food diet, the Atkins diet, the Blood Type diet, the macrobiotic diet, the low-fat diet…
With so many conflicting dietary suggestions, how can we be sure what, when and how much to eat? Not to mention other questions. Are vegetarian diets better than meat based diets? What about “cleanse” diets — are they healthy? Are all advertised productes equally good for us? As a concrete example: take olive oil, red wine, coffee, dark chocolate, and dietary supplements, are they always beneficial? And how about meat, dairy products and sugars, are they inherently harmful?
My first objective in researching the philosophy of nutrition is to discuss the question “what is proper nutrition?”. Upon first glance it might appear obvious: there are healthy and unhealthy foods, so why waste precious time researching this in the first place. That being said, as soon as we examine the subject more closely, we realize that the study of nutrition is far more complex than it first appears. Since before discussing “good” nutrition, we must uncover important principles about the nature of the world and ourselves.
There are several questions we must understand. Who stands to gain most from promoting the various diets offered to us. Is there a single diet that fits all people, at all times, and in all places? Or are there subjective factors that must be taken into account in order to prescribe a good diet? How should we incorporate other concepts — such as career choices, body posture, sleeping habits, exercise, personal taste and ethical convictions — into our understanding of good nutrition? Can we change our physiological and psychological characteristics in accordance with a dietary goal, or are they predefined and immutable? More abstractly, Is good nutrition a final goal or does it serve as means to other values? What is the correlation between nutrition and health? And can we accumulate health for a “rainy day” by following a stricter, healthier diet for some time?
Due to the plethora of conflicting opinions, prescriptions, and interests regarding nutrition, it is no wonder that so many people feel quite helpless in fulfilling their health-related and aesthetic goals. Diabetes, obesity, chronic fatigue, digestive problems, ADHD, sleep disorders, low self-esteem, depression, anorexia, bulimia, and other physical and psychological illnesses have become prevalent in most western countries. Is it fair to attribute all of them to poor nutrition? Probably not. ּBut most doctors and nutritionists will agree that poor dietary habits definitely contribute to these problems.
How will we dispel the confusion surrounding good nutrition? We must start at the beginning. We must account for the basic philosophical assumptions placed at the heart of all applied sciences before we can try to define a “proper” nutritional system.
What is Philosophy?
In its simplest definition, philosophy is a science concerned with three main questions:
- What is the nature of the universe?
- What is the nature of man?
- What is the relationship between man and the universe in which he exists?
To answer these key questions philosophers mainly focus on five forms of inquiry: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics and aesthetics, all of which together form a cohesive system of principles to guide man’s actions.
Metaphysics seeks to determine the essential nature of the various phenomena around us, whether this nature is changeable, and if something can be created out of nothingness. For instance, what distinguishes humans from other organisms? Or, based on Spinoza’s quote, what makes Little Johnny different from other people, and from his past and future self? Epistemology asks, what is truth and certainty? What is causation, and is it necessary? Is knowledge innate or external in origin? And what is the reliability of sense perception? Ethics explores the responsibilities accompanying free will and investigates the difference between good and evil. Politics aims to define a balance between individual activities in society. Aesthetics tries to understand beauty and the inspirational role of heroes. And there are many subfields of philosophy besides the ones listed.
Philosophical questions like these establish the core of all knowledge, including nutrition. Valid answers enable us to understand the principles governing our internal and external worlds, while fallacies lead us to contradictions and an inability to achieve our goals.
It is important to realize that while the scope of philosophic questions is wide, it is nonetheless one of the most accessible fields of knowledge. Simply put, all one has to do is ask the right questions, observe reality, and formulate valid conclusions.
A New Approach
Through philosophical inquiry, we will find that most nutritional systems promoted today are, in some form or another, inconsistent with man’s nature. Many doctors, biologists and chemists claim that nutritional problems stem from physiological problems and can be solved by material means: e.g. drugs, surgery or physical exercise. On the other hand, many psychologists argue that nutritional problems arise from the subconscious and should therefore be solved through cognitive and behavioural means. Sociologists and economists, in contrast, affirm that nutritional problems arise from conflicting interests in society that steer society towards consumption of particular goods and should consequently be solved through political means.
Modern science exemplifies objectivity and universality in that its conclusions should be reproducible by everyone experimenting in similar conditions. But can one talk about universality when it comes to nutrition? Can the effects of gravity on inanimate objects, for example, be equated with the effects of drugs and foods on different people? If a rock and a person are thrown from an airplane, they will both follow the rules of free fall; but can the complex working of metabolism and consciousness be reduced to a simplified scientific law governing all organisms in the same manner? And if not, could we achieve uniformity if we conform to a particular behavior?
Even though all humans share particular characteristics people in the western world have long since realized that individuals differ in many ways — ranging from held beliefs, skills and interests to physiological and psychological qualities. So why do so many dietary systems still suggest we should eat the same way? Are all nutritional problems brought about by similar reasons? Isn’t it the case that, occasionally, common symptoms can arise from different problems? And how should individuals refer to statistically based conclusions if they’re out of the “norm”?
Using a multidisciplinary approach, we’ll introduce theories that affect the way we think about nutrition today; we’ll explain how these theories are expressed in our daily lives; we’ll distinguish facts from superstitions; we’ll discuss the human body’s needs and limitations; and we’ll acquire rational tools with which to choose the nutritional system that best suits our personal characteristics.