A systems approach to food and nutrition – Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food”

Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.

These seven words make up the entirety of the “eater’s manifesto” that is the subtitle of Michael Pollan‘s book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Of course, if the “doing” were as easy as the “saying”, Pollan wouldn’t have needed 200+ pages to explain the three rules embodied in these seven words.

At its core, Pollan’s argument is one for a systems view of food and nutrition and against attempts to reduce the complexity of the “food web” into its various components, each considered in isolation from the other. He points to the Western conception of food, especially our current “food science” and “nutrition industry”, as an example of the dangers of the reductionist view point.

As Pollan himself mentions in the introduction, it seemed to me at first to be a little bit strange for someone to be telling me to “eat food”. I mean, what else would I eat? The answer, as it turns out, is that a lot of what I – and quite probably you – eat is actually what Pollan refers to as “edible food-like substances”.

These food-like substances are, according to Pollan, the result of “nutritionism”, a deliberate effort by food scientists – and the companies that employ them – to break food down into it’s component parts, the macro- and micro-nutrients, so that these nutrients can be efficiently – and profitably – delivered to consumers.

map-in-defense-of-food

The topics on the left side of the mind map above give an idea of how Pollan believes “nutritionism” has led to many of our current health problems, including the epidemic of obesity. He covers these in the first two sections of the book.

The topics on the right side give an idea of  the key points behind the three rules of his eater’s manifesto and how they all work together as a system. He covers this in section 3 of the book.

If you are inclined to systems thinking, Pollan’s argument will make perfect sense. There may be some areas you could nit-pick, but the overall approach is sound. If, on the other hand, you are not a “systems-thinker”, you may very well find yourself a bit confused and uncomfortable. We are, in general, so accustomed to worrying about all the parts of nutrition that it will take a very concerted – and conscious – effort, to “let go” and trust the system.

– – — — —–

The mind map in Mind Manager 6 Pro format.

C-C-C-C-Complexity

As a Systems Engineer working on a huge system-of-systems, complexity is a part of my daily life.  (I’m not complaining – I love it!).  But not everyone involved always recognizes the situation as complex, as opposed to simply complicated.  Of course, not everyone is in a position where they see the complexity; it all depends on your perspective.  But I think the people who will see the most success in life are those that put themselves in the position to see, understand, and take advantage of the complexity of things.

Anyway, here are the 5 C’s of complexity from Dave Snowden:

  • Constraint is key to understanding complexity, it governs the transition between the three ontologies. Increase constraint and you create an ordered system; do that inappropriately and you create the conditions for catastrophic failure; remove constraint and the system is chaotic. Lightly constrain the system, while allowing it to be modified by the actors within it and you enable evolution and the emergence of meaning. Managing constrains is one of the things you can train managers to do, and measure their capability and effectiveness.
  • Coherence is the measure and concept by which you judge the validity of an action in a complex domain. A lightly constrained system modifies as agents interact with it, but it does constrain. The constant change means that is it difficult to provide absolute proof of an idea or approach (by the time you did the situation would have changed), but it is possible to create tests (including mathematical tests) of the degree of coherence that an idea has.
  • Connectivity is key to a complex system, where agent proximity has a massive impact on agent action. Of course the nature of connections is also key (just connecting things is not enough. If I increase connectivity I can increase variety and thence novelty by the right selection of links. But I can also increase connectivity of like with like if I want to exploit existing knowledge. I may generate a higher or lower degree of coherence, or at least test my ability to do so.
  • Context is vital. I remember a great advert for the Guardian newspaper. In the first scene you see a skinhead running towards a women; the perspective shifts and you see him about to grab a middle aged man with a briefcase; the perspective shifts and you see him drag the man into the doorway before a skip of building material would have fallen on his head and killed him. We need to acknowledge perspective but it doesn’t follow that we can never be objective.
  • Coalescence is an alternative to categories which are all to common in management speak. We like to put things into little boxes so we have them properly organised. Its better to think about things as the centre of a coalescence with fussy boundaries Interestingly we are starting to understand that this is the nature of our own mind. Its a distributed function of our brain, hormones, nervous and tactile systems and in all probability toe environment. Categories lead to stereotyping, coalescence to meaning

Of course, the “C” that is missing is “complexity” itself.  But that is a much larger discussion.