Toward a new philosophy of preventive nutrition: from a reductionist to a holistic paradigm to improve nutritional recommendations

Adv Nutr. 2014 Jul 14;5(4):430-46. doi: 10.3945/an.114.006122. Print 2014 Jul.


The reductionist approach has been predominant to date in human nutrition research and has unraveled some of the fundamental mechanisms at the basis of food nutrients (e.g., those that involve deficiency diseases). In Western countries, along with progress in medicine and pharmacology, the reductionist approach helped to increase life expectancy. However, despite 40 y of research in nutrition, epidemics of obesity and diabetes are growing each year worldwide, both in developed and developing countries, leading to a decrease in healthy life years. Yet, interactions between nutrition-health relations cannot be modeled on the basis of a linear cause-effect relation between 1 food compound and 1 physiologic effect but rather from multicausal nonlinear relations. In other words, explaining the whole from the specific by a bottom-up reductionist approach has its limits. A top-down approach becomes necessary to investigate complex issues through a holistic view before addressing any specific question to explain the whole. However, it appears that both approaches are necessary and mutually reinforcing. In this review, Eastern and Western research perspectives are first presented, laying out bases for what could be the consequences of applying a reductionist versus holistic approach to research in nutrition vis-à-vis public health, environmental sustainability, breeding, biodiversity, food science and processing, and physiology for improving nutritional recommendations. Therefore, research that replaces reductionism with a more holistic approach will reveal global and efficient solutions to the problems encountered from the field to the plate. Preventive human nutrition can no longer be considered as "pharmacology" or foods as "drugs."

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Diabetes Mellitus / prevention & control*
  • Diet*
  • Health*
  • Humans
  • Nutrition Policy*
  • Nutritional Status*
  • Obesity / prevention & control*
  • Research