November 4, 2008 - After many years of wanting to do this, I finally completed my doctoral work at The Union Institute and University in 2002, and earned the degree in “Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences with an emphasis on Wholistic Nutrition.” It took me four years, a great deal of study, many pages of writing, and the unwavering support of the excellent people on my doctoral committee, other learners at TUIU, as well as of my family and friends. Truly no one lives in a vacuum, and such a project as a doctoral study needs the energies of many. As a graduate of TUIU I’m proud to find myself among such luminaries as Jean Houston, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Gary Null, and Shari Lieberman.
Just as each of us is part of an interrelated whole of family and community, so is every other element in nature. That includes the nutrients in food. For a long time I have been espousing the importance of using whole foods, instead of focusing on individual and separate nutrients. For my doctoral program I decided to look at other areas of science to see if I could find support for that notion. While traditional medicines from other cultures, such as Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, had very clear dietary philosophies, I could find no clearly expressed “philosophy of nutrition” that was based on the scientific approach. Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, expressed the problem most cogently: “In physics, there are theoretical physics and applied physics. There is very little “theoretical” in other fields, especially biology, as molecular biology seems to have no need of theoretical predictions as guides for experiments. Why not? This is a problem, in my view, as it takes an assumed theory to be the final truth arbiter.” (The Quark and the Jaguar) I took this quote as the basis for the problem I wanted to explore. What is the “assumed theory” of nutrition? Answer: the chemistry of biology is the basis, but there is no expressed theoretical biochemistry. In biochemistry, living things are treated exactly the same as inanimate objects, even though two are in some profound way fundamentally different. To deal with this problem I needed a theoretical framework that applies to nutrition beyond biochemistry. So I went exploring other fields, which fit perfectly with TUIU’s mandate that doctoral work is expected to be interdisciplinary. The title of my dissertation will give you an idea of where I went looking: “Wholistic Nutrition: From biochemistry to chaos, complexity, and quantum physics -- applying some concepts from contemporary science to a new understanding of how food affects health.” It’s a mouthful, I know -- but that is what I did.
Biochemistry, the classic scientific approach to studying the effects of food, has given society a tremendous amount of information about nutrition. It has taught us the roles of the macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrates), of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals, antioxydants, phytochemicals), and of their importance in our health. However, biochemistry alone is not sufficient to understand the effects of food on the body, as it focuses mainly on individual nutrients isolated from the whole. As the body itself is an indivisible whole, no matter how carefully we study the individual parts, that study will not give us a complete picture of its function.
There are other fields that can vastly expand our understanding. First of all, systems theory, which I already mentioned in my book Food and Healing. Systems theory is very clear: the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Theoreticians such as Ervin Laszlo1 and Ilya Prigogine2 laid a strong foundation for this field, which should be, in my estimation, the bedrock on which any study of living things, from amoebas to ecosystems, should rest.
Complexity theory is an expansion of systems theory. It is the major field of study at the Santa Fe Institute, in Santa Fe, NM. Complexity theory looks at questions of wholism: world-wide politics, the movement of economic markets, ecosystems, social systems, body systems such as the brain, the mind, and the immune system.3 Computer modeling is used frequently, although I didn’t get into that. Complexity theory shows that wholes have what are called “emergent properties” that are not found at the level of the individual components. For example, “wetness” is a property of water, but not of either oxygen nor hydrogen, both gases. Clearly, complexity theory needs to be part of the theoretical framework that supports a wholistic view of nutrition: carrots are more than an aggregate of carbohydrates, beta carotene, Vitamin C, and water.
Next I explored chaos theory. Chaos theory is actually the study of how order develops out of complex systems. It studies, though the use of non-linear equations, the behavior of complex moving systems over time -- that means, it is truly Einsteinian, or four-dimensional. Systems such as the weather, traffic patterns, and even hospital personnel activities have been studied in this framework. I was particularly fascinated by one of the main points of chaos theory, what has been called “sensitive dependence on initial conditions.” That means that if at the beginning of a moving system there is a very small change in the equations, the result further down the line can be unexpected and huge, out of all proportion to the minute change -- the famous “butterfly effect”, or the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in Peking can trigger an eventual storm in New York. 4 I found this particularly applicable to such nutritional events as infant feeding (there is a difference between breast and bottle at the beginning of life, and its effects will be felt all along), and food changes for health improvement.
Quantum physics was truly daunting. As with the other subjects, I did not get into the math -- I was just interested in basic concepts and metaphors.4 There are numerous ideas in QP that have been appropriated by others, for better or for worse, and the word itself appears frequently in titles, both scientific or of a “New Age” or “Alternative” bent -- Quantum Healing (Deepak Chopra), Quantum Questions (Ken Wilber), Quantum Evolution (Johnjoe McFadden), The Quantum Self (Dana Zohar), and many others. There were two concepts that I found particularly applicable to my quest.
First, the idea that light can be both particle and wave. As visible light is part of the entire electromagnetic spectrum, it follows that everything thereon can be both particle and wave. It is my belief, and my theory, that this principle can be extended to macroscopic systems -- including physical matter such as bodies and food. Under this theory, food can then be studied as particles (which is what biochemistry does) or as waves (which is what Chinese medicine does when attending to the five flavors). The particle-wave situation gives rise to the principle of complementarity -- which says that in complementary sets of two opposites, both are valid, neither can be eliminated. In addition, you can study and see one, or study and see the other, but never both opposites at the same time. 5 The well-known trompe l’oeuil picture of the face/vase illustrates this principle perfectly: you can see the faces, or you can see the vase, but never simultaneously. The idea of complementary opposites is of course classically expressed in the yin/yang theory of Chinese medicine, which I have adapted to what I call the expansive/contractive system.
So there you have it: a new approach to food. I propose that Wholistic Nutrition be defined as the study of how different foods, both whole and refined or fragmented, affect various levels of the human being's bodymind (physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual). The theoretical framework that legitimizes it rests on biochemistry as well as on systems theory, chaos theory, complexity, and quantum physics. I hope this idea spreads rapidly as a framework for nutritional interventions, education, and research.
by Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D.
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1. Laszlo E. The Systems View of the World: A Holistic Vision for Our Time. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press; 1996.
2. Prigogine I. From Being to Becoming: Time and Complexity in the Physical Sciences. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman & Co.; 1980.
3. Waldrop MM. Complexity: The emerging science at the edge of order and chaos. New York, London: Simon & Schuster; 1992.
4. Gleick J. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin Books; 1987.
5. Jones RS. Physics for the Rest of Us: Ten Basic Ideas of Twentieth-Century Physics that Everyone Should Know . . . and How They Have Shaped Our Culture and Consciousness. New York: Barnes & Noble Books; 1999.
“To purchase a copy of Dr Colbin’s dissertation, please call the Natural Gourmet Institute at 212-645-5170, ext 0, and have your credit card ready. Cost is $24.95, plus $4.95 shipping in the continental US.
In addition, you can request it from Union Institute and University on an Interlibrary Loan. Please check with your local librarian.” Used with Permission by Annemarie Colbin www.foodandhealing.com
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