Saturday, September 11, 2010

Dogen Zenji on Nutritionism

Dogen Zenji was the man who brought the Soto lineage of Zen Buddhism to Japan. He was a prolific writer, and many of his texts are respected both inside and outside the Soto Zen community. Last week, my Zen group was discussing the Genjo Koan, one of his works that is frequently used as a chant. Here's an excerpt. It may seem cryptic but bear with me:
...when you sail out in a boat to the middle of an ocean where no land is in sight, and view the four directions, the ocean looks circular, and does not look any other way. But the ocean is neither round or square; its features are infinite in variety... It only look circular as far as you can see at that time. All things are like this.

Though there are many features in the dusty world and the world beyond conditions, you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach. In order to learn the nature of the myriad things, you must know that although they may look round or square, the other features of oceans and mountains are infinite in variety; whole worlds are there. It is so not only around you, but also directly beneath your feet, or in a drop of water.

What Dogen meant, among other things, is that the world is much more complex than what our conscious minds can perceive or understand. It was true in the 13th century, and it's still true today, despite our greatly expanded understanding of the natural world.

We can apply this principle to nutrition. For example, what is red palm oil? Two hundred years ago, perhaps we only knew a few basic facts about it. It's a fat, it's red, it comes from an African palm fruit and it has a particular melting point and flavor. Then we learned about vitamins, so we knew it contained vitamin E, carotenes (provitamin A), and vitamin K. Then fatty acid composition, so we found out it's mostly palmitic and oleic acids. Now we know red palm oil contains an array of polyphenols, sterols, coenzyme Q10 and many other non-essential constituents. We don't know much about the biological effects of most of these substances, particularly in combination with one another.

Add to that the fact that every batch of red palm oil is different, due to strain, terroir, processing, storage, et cetera. We know what the concept "red palm oil" means, roughly, but the details are infinitely complex. Now feed it to a human, who is not only incredibly complex himself, but genetically and epigenetically unique. How can we possibly guess the outcome of this encounter based on the chemical composition of red palm oil? That's essentially what nutritionism attempts to do.

To be fair, nutritionism does work sometimes. For example, we can pretty well guess that a handful of wild almonds containing a lot of cyanide won't be healthy to eat, due at least in part to the cyanide. But outside extreme examples like this, we're in a gray zone that needs to be informed by empirical observation. In other words, what happens when the person in question actually eats the red palm oil? What happened when a large group of people in West Africa ate red palm oil for thousands of years? Those questions are the reason why I'm so interested in understanding the lives of healthy non-industrial cultures.

I'm not criticizing reductionist science or controlled experiments (which I perform myself); I just think they need to be kept in context. I believe they should be interpreted within the framework of more basic empirical observations*.

One of the most important aspects of scientific maturity is learning to accept and manage uncertainty and your own ignorance. Some things are more certain than others, but most aren't set in stone. I think Dogen would tell us to be wary of nutritionism, and other forms of overconfidence.


* Wikipedia's definition of empirical: "information gained by means of observation, experience, or experiment." As opposed to inferences made from experiments not directly related to the question at hand.

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