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Reductionism: Dinner Goes To Pieces

Reductionism: Your Dinner Goes To Pieces

We say nothing essential about the cathedral when we speak of its stones. ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900 - 1944)

It was Aldous Huxley who described the brain as a "reducing valve".[i] The mind, exposed to a theoretically infinite number of experiences, breaks down and synthesizes chunks of the infinite into intelligible thoughts, words, and memories. In fact, the central function of the brain, purported Huxley, was not to expand consciousness, but to keep it from spinning off into limitlessness by reducing its awareness into much smaller, more manageable fragments. The brain, therefore, is not that which makes expansive consciousness possible, but rather that which limits it.

And so, we distill a piece of this infinity -- lest we be swallowed and digested by it -- into an ego, whose main role, is to deny that we are more than this illusion of finitude.  Humans, perched both preeminently and precariously on top of the food chain, must reduce other things, or be reduced by other organisms. Digest or be digested;dominate or be dominated.  These laws of survival infuse cultural patterns with unnecessary and misdirected behaviors, however.

One of these behaviors is the routine atomization of our food into its nutritional components.  The soul is in the whole.  However, we lose the soul when we destroy the whole in favor of a list of constituents.  We take strange comfort in creating formulas for our physical health without considering our emotional health.  These formulas borrow from labels. 

They borrow from lists of vitamin C super-foods and not from the experience of squeezing just picked oranges into a glass of fresh, bright juice; from omega 3/omega 6 ratio statistics and not from the anticipation of a dinner of roasted, nut-crusted wild salmon; from so-called recommended daily intakes of grams of protein and not in the elegance of a resolutely fluffy mushroom omelet. We focus on the parts and consequently we lose the soul. Inhabiting the soul is the healing and the pleasure of food - the very results we seek.  Tragically, we lose those too.

In an article published recently on, Margie King talks about the whole food being more than the sum of its parts.[ii]  She draws from the research of Dr. Annemarie Colbin, author of Food and Healing who purports that when we consume fragments of a whole food, our bodies feel the absence of the missing parts and proceed to seek them.[iii]

The USDA's 'Nutrition Facts'[iv] profile on apples illustrates the inanity of the reductionist approach taken to its extreme.  According to this interpretation, the apple, despite its place as the most famously iconic of all health foods  appears to be nothing more than a sugar-rich, nutritionally empty, dummy food!

Apples, Raw, with Skin, USDA

Nutrition Facts Apple

This reduction of food into aggregations of elements does not even acknowledge the benefit of the whole ingredient, let alone in a combination of ingredients.  Pesto is a Genovese specialty that has become a prolific North American condiment.  Filtered through the nutritional reductionist's lens, this would be abbreviated to merely basil and pine nuts and their respective nutritional contributions. According to the USDA nutrition data base, basil has 6% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A.  Pine nuts are rich in omega 3 fats.

But isn't this traditional, versatile food with its countless variations more than a couple of micronutrients piled atop pasta?  A more holistic approach would consider that even strictly nutritionally speaking, pesto is at the very least an ensemble piece and not a pair of individual characters monologuing at opposite ends of the stage.  For example, the fat in pine nuts would make more bio-available the fat soluble vitamin A in the basil.  The basil's volatile essential oil fraction would prevent rancidity in the fat of the pine nut.  Ingredients can save one another, make each other the best renditions of themselves.  This synergy - this magic if you will - is significant.  Yet our reducing valve persists, keeping our minds wrapped tightly around the finite, denying us the magic.

Pesto Healing Properties

More magic is lost as we sanitize the libidinal origins out of the experience of eating and ignore the therapeutic value in the mindful and deliberate preparation of our food.  We fixate on fast and easy.  We forget that perhaps twenty minutes spent compiling a lettuce wrap filled with favorite foods affords us an opportunity to meditate that the ten spent warming a product constructed by a stranger in a sterilized kitchen does not.  We consider only adjunct the setting in which we eat when it is central to the healing power of our food believing that eating from packages - not plates - is more practical.  Cooking for and serving the beloved people in one's community seems to be impractical when in fact it is only slightly less convenient but boundlessly more rewarding than eating alone.

Reduction of whole things into parts of things is a process our consciousness has perfected.  It has helped put us here in this moment right now and, as such, must have some value. The reduction of our experience of food into ingredients and - further - into mono-chemicals teased out from the plumbless background of complex chemistries however, fails us.  The perpetual objective of simplifying when applied to food and eating robs us of the real healing. 

We were meant to eat whole foods, not supplements extracted from the real thing.  We were meant to prepare food with and for others and enjoy and consider those preparations in community.  We were meant to eat without layers of plastic or paper interrupting our sensory journey.  At our current post-modern pace and with our penchant for the instantaneous and the distilled, this propensity for diminution not only steals the joy from our food, it may eventually do us in.



Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of GreenMedInfo or its staff.

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Context Context Context

   Reductionism has great value in uncovering fundamental principles and finding commonalities/ long as context is not dismissed. Unfortunately context has been removed from every facet of modern life that focuses on silver bullets and golden rewards.   The context of life is energy.


It should be a given that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Focusing on a single nutrient misses the larger picture of the serendipitous combination of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, anthocyanins, all the phytonutrients working in harmony toward your good health.

But wait! A pesto without olive oil? Is this an abbreviated recipe, or merely a typo? Can't have a decent pesto without olive oil!

Need supplements though

Hi, totally agree that various fractions don't make a whole. There are good arguements for supplementation of nutrients though. Just listened to an interview with an expert on the fat soluble vitamins. This was presented by the "Designs For Health" supplement conpany. It reinforced the synergy of nutrient needs argument (vitamins A and D should be taken in a ratio of 5-1). We are talking performed vitamin A, not betacarotene. The talk also argued for the need for suppelemntation: almost all of us will be deficient in vitamin K2 unless we consume animal livers or numerous egg yolks form pastured animals. You can't depend on your metabolism to convert vitamin K1 to K2. Ancestral diets contained hefty amounts of fat soluble vitamins and in appropriate ratios. It's doubtful that even the best modern diets can accomplish this. 

Another point, there is evidence that poor diets in one generation will affect the next. If you are not from a linage eating a whole ancestral diet, your nutrient needs will be greater than normal. I think this includes most of us (I'm third generation Italian/German and 3 generations away from anything that could be considered a good diet).

We need Whole foods and Whole Medicines

Excellent post about food. I believe we need to understand and apply the same concepts to medicines. Medicines that are extracted, refined, concentrated from traditional medicines lose value in the process. When we attempt to extract the 'essential components' of traditional medicines - which are actually foods, we loose the wholeness and synergy that exists in natural medicines. We need more open source medicines - we especially need more medicines that can be created with a cook stove, some common labour, and some community efforts. We don't need more medicines that are created with refinement and 'patents' as the goal. to your health, tracy

open source medicine

Hi, liked the open source medicine site.


"And so, we distill a piece of this infinity -- lest we be swallowed and digested by it -- into an ego, whose main role, is to deny that we are more than this illusion of finitude." I like the way that sentence opens me up to the infinite possibilities of conscious existence. I must admit that I reduce meals to their parts. When I see the plate of pasta with pesto, I see wheat and too many carbohydrates. I'm sure it tastes great especially if the "Gourmet Doctors" prepared it. Maybe we can have both: awareness of the nutritionnal balance of our meals, awareness that we are all biochemically unique, and mindfulness in preparation, presentation and consumption of our foods.


Yes, yes we can....we will get there.  We must.  We can start by thinking about our experience of eating as inclusive.  What we can eat and what that ADDS to the experience: joy, sensation, pleasure, memory.  This is how the expansion will begin.    - Edible Education: The Docor Gourmet Project


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