Unbridled Reductionism vs. Common Sense

I get lots of interesting questions. For instance, the other day I was in the 40F deg. cold plunge at San Jose Athletic Club – a mere 5-minute walk from the loft — and while coming up on the minute mark and my intended time to get out, another guy got in and asked if I hadn't lost quite a bit of weight.

I ended up staying in and chatting for over five minutes about things Primal, Paleo, and "Ev-Revolutionary," not feeling a bit cold.

But the questions were remarkable, in that he could see the transformation in front of his very eyes — which meant he also had no reason to doubt my performance gains in the gym either (and he could just go ask my trainer, Mike, anyway). But I guess they had to come…

Fasting? Doesn't that "harm your metabolism?"
Answer by question: does it harm the metabolisms of wild animals if they don't always get their kill?…

"Skipping" breakfast? Don't you have to "fuel" the body for the day?
Answer by question: are you saying that I should eat when I'm not hungry, and, do you observe wild animals eating that way?… 

"Only" two meals per day, usually? Don't you need to keep your "nitrogen balance" up so that you don't waste lean tissue?
Answer by question: do wild animals save up their kills and forages in order to divide into six annoying little meals per day?…

No cardio? Don't you have to get your heart rate up into the "fat burning zone?"
Answer by question: do you see wild animals on treadmills or in any way behaving as though they would have the remotest use for one?

Of course, this could go on and on, but hopefully you see the underlying principle at work. Principles save time, folks, because once you see them vindicated over and over, you can gradually raise the bar, over time, such that the burden of proof becomes greater, and you can dismiss out of hand propositions that clearly violate the principle.

I do this a lot, lately. There's so much out there now that is the product of unbridled reductionism in the service of bias confirmation; i.e., The Conventional Wisdom. So, for example, we can easily understand from an almost obvious, self-evident (a priori) point of view that it would be entirely logical for nature to have evolved very complex pathways in many species, including humans, that provide for essential nourishment from the body's own tissues when needed. Everyone talks about "fat burning," but the body can also burn lean tissue (for protein), and even bone (for calcium and perhaps other essential minerals).

But now, since we've been subjected to the conventional "wisdom" for decades that fat is the greatest nutritional evil, everyone is obsessed about "burning fat," "preserving lean tissue," and even, now, preserving bones from leaching minerals. Of course, no one seems to stop to ponder why they aren't afraid of releasing all that arterycloggingsaturatedfat into their bloodstream when they get into the "fat burning range."

So what happens? Reductionism happens, which, on its face is a worthwhile endeavor: "an approach to understand the nature of complex things by reducing them to the interactions of their parts, or to simpler or more fundamental things" (Wikipedia) That's a good method generally, but then there's the unbridled sort of reductionism where a complex, integrated, and logical view of a system is set aside while sweeping cautions are leveled against perfectly normal behavior that we observe in nature all the time, like not getting three squares per day, not eating when hungry, not eating every two – three waking hours, and not running on treadmills or in circles.

Here's an example that's a little different from the above, which focuses primarily on fat burning and an obsessive fear with metabolizing even the slightest gram of lean body mass. I received this very respectful question in email from a reader.

I'd like to preface this by stating that I'm very grateful for the information that people like you and Mark Sisson freely provide to those who are trying to live and eat in a healthy, natural manner.

My question is concerning the fact that Vitamin K2 protects against osteoporosis. You stated that things like animal fats and lean meats are good sources of K2. Since K2 protects against osteoporosis, then it's logical to say that increased meat consumption would preclude bone breakdown; however, I have also read other literature stating that a high protein diet — such as a diet high in meat content — would also cause the blood pH to be in a persistent, subclinically acidotic state. The thinking is that this would cause leeching of calcium from the bones, which leads to calciuria and decreased bone mineral density.

I'm thinking that there is a gap in knowledge with respect to the latter point, but can you explain the logical disconnect between the two?

Well I must say that reader Sun hit the nail on the head: logical disconnect. Now, without knowing anything else, does it make any sense that one pathway to good health is also the pathway to decline? I touched on this in my Vitamin K2 entry the other day:

So we're in a sort of bizarre estoppel situation, where they're now finding important nutritional benefits for preventing and reversing heart disease, and these super nutrients are found primarily in the things we've been told will give us heart disease. A perfect storm of modern ignorance.

And digging through the medical literature can become even more confusing, and these are just things I got today, only one of which I explicitly searched for:

Maybe vitamin K increases bone mineral density (BMD) in some people.

Or, maybe it doesn't.

Or, maybe vitamin D is also critical, synergistic.

Or, maybe what's really important is the actual end fracture risk, not bone density, implying the logical, that BD is not the only factor in fractures.

It's enough to make your head spin. Now, here's one I specifically went searching for, but really, only as a means of showing you that the fundamental logic, the paleo Principle, is sound. Of course, eating meat in abundance is great and essential for your bones, just as one would think from merely looking around and observing nature.

Nutrition plays a major role in the development and maintenance of bone structures resistant to usual mechanical loadings. In addition to calcium in the presence of an adequate vitamin D supply, proteins represent a key nutrient for bone health, and thereby in the prevention of osteoporosis. In sharp opposition to experimental and clinical evidence, it has been alleged that proteins, particularly those from animal sources, might be deleterious for bone health by inducing chronic metabolic acidosis which in turn would be responsible for increased calciuria and accelerated mineral dissolution. This claim is based on an hypothesis that artificially assembles various notions, including in vitro observations on the physical-chemical property of apatite crystal, short term human studies on the calciuric response to increased protein intakes, as well as retrospective inter-ethnic comparisons on the prevalence of hip fractures. The main purpose of this review is to analyze the evidence that refutes a relation of causality between the elements of this putative patho-physiological "cascade" that purports that animal proteins are causally associated with an increased incidence of osteoporotic fractures. In contrast, many experimental and clinical published data concur to indicate that low protein intake negatively affects bone health. Thus, selective deficiency in dietary proteins causes marked deterioration in bone mass, micro architecture and strength, the hallmark of osteoporosis. In the elderly, low protein intakes are often observed in patients with hip fracture. In these patients intervention study after orthopedic management demonstrates that protein supplementation as given in the form of casein, attenuates post-fracture bone loss, increases muscles strength, reduces medical complications and hospital stay. In agreement with both experimental and clinical intervention studies, large prospective epidemiologic observations indicate that relatively high protein intakes, including those from animal sources are associated with increased bone mineral mass and reduced incidence of osteoporotic fractures. As to the increased calciuria that can be observed in response to an augmentation in either animal or vegetal proteins it can be explained by a stimulation of the intestinal calcium absorption. Dietary proteins also enhance IGF-1, a factor that exerts positive activity on skeletal development and bone formation. Consequently, dietary proteins are as essential as calcium and vitamin D for bone health and osteoporosis prevention. Furthermore, there is no consistent evidence for superiority of vegetal over animal proteins on calcium metabolism, bone loss prevention and risk reduction of fragility fractures.

Now, did you catch the unbridled reductionism in the above? "This claim is based on an hypothesis that artificially assembles various notions, including in vitro observations on the physical-chemical property of apatite crystal, short term human studies on the calciuric response to increased protein intakes, as well as retrospective inter-ethnic comparisons on the prevalence of hip fractures."

It's all so unnecessary.

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More


  1. Robert M. on May 28, 2009 at 15:32

    Want to prevent osteoporosis, look at the example of astronauts:

    Astronauts are a great case study for when you remove all sources of tension (i.e. force) from the body what happens to the bones and muscle and heart: it all goes by-by. The cytoskeleton of cells are essentially force sensors and they do react to loading:

    I recall some research that stem cells use their cytoskeleton to probe the stiffness of the cells around them (bone > skeletal muscle > smooth muscle) and use that information to determine what type of tissue to form.

    Some high-impact exercise is the way to convince the body to maintain strong bones. However, one has to realize that the high-impact exercise dose curve is probably U-shaped. Too much damages the tissues, while too little allows the body think those tissues are redundant.

  2. Richard Nikoley on May 28, 2009 at 16:01

    Thanks for bringing that up, Robert. By the time I thought to add something on resistance training for bone health I was already way long.

    Nice that it's the first comment, for those who dig deeper.

  3. amie on May 29, 2009 at 16:58

    I've been wanting to ask this question for ages, but felt I'd look stupid. I'm just gonna get over it and ask: what are the basics of paleo and/or your way of diet and exercise? Can you dumb it down for me or send me somewhere where its written in a concise way? You have so much information here that I tend to get lost. What would I need to know to start and change my way of eating?

  4. Don Matesz on May 30, 2009 at 13:44

    "It's all so unnecessary."

    So true. And also true that few remain who know how to identify and establish, much less reason from, principles; an effect of modern education.

    I like your way to answer the queries about natural eating and exercise. I've done something similar myself in my classes. Often I can see the questioner's eyes alight when they get it.

    Principles set people free; reductionism puts them in cages.


  5. Don Matesz on May 30, 2009 at 13:53

    Bones don't require "high impact" exercise, they require loading with resistance. High impact means high forces, such as running, jumping, etc., which lead to injury of soft tissues involved (joints); and we can't scale high impact activities unscalable because we have no reliable way to unmeasure them.

    High resistance low force (i.e. relatively low velocity movements), i.e. high intensity resistance training, builds bone tissue without high-impact and its attendant drawbacks. Training with weights is almost infinitely scalable to the individual (e.g. elderly) since you can adjust resistance in whatever increments you desire. High impact activities in elderly could easily result in broken bones, but low force resistance training will build bone without such risk. Imagine trying to get an unfit 80 year old woman to do plyometrics! I would call that malpractice.


  6. Rory on June 3, 2009 at 04:58

    Richard: I am constantly amazed by the philosophical veracity of your posts.

    I am a Philosophy undergraduate, and one thing I constantly come up against is rampant reductionism. People always want to say, for example, "What essential thing is consciousness made of?" whilst ignoring more sensible questions like "What does it mean to be conscious? What principles are involved there?"
    If they asked themselves principled questions, rather than trying to reduce everything to tiny little analytical symbols, they would start to realise why they are ending up in circles.

    Just had to get that off my chest. Loving all this stuff Nokely. Keep it up!

  7. Richard Nikoley on June 3, 2009 at 10:10

    Thanks Rory. My days of thinking about philosophy from an academic or political perspective were replaced by thinking about it from a primal perspective.

    That's when it became real, more integrated, less reduced.

    I think HGs were probably pretty grounded. After all, they knew they existed, they trusted that their knowledge was knowledge of _reality_, because they lived by their knowledge and logic (non-contradictory identification) for their very lives. They were out for their own well being and the well being of those with whom they shared and exchanges values, and voila:

    Metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and politics right there. Still haven't sorted out aesthetics from a primal perspective.

    Any thoughts?

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