The stickiness of our health system and the problem for science

Objektion
6 min readApr 12, 2021
Photo by Kendal on Unsplash

I write about things that I care about, and write from my own perspective, based on the points of view that I have read about, through research and studies, courses, articles, and more. This week I want to talk about nutrition and health. The two are so intimately linked, yet there is very little in the way of advice and support for those who are looking to improve their health through nutrition. The food pyramid and the notices about ‘5+ a day’ are about it when it comes to meaningful government-supported information in the public space. As a result, the rest is filled up (and overflowing) with fads, diets, regimes, superfoods, and more which seem to have an efficacy of about 6 months, before they are replaced by more trendy options.

This situation is unfortunate. Many, many scientific studies point to the role that proper nutrition plays in the health and wellbeing of individuals. The work of people like Julia Rucklidge and Bonnie Kaplan on the impact of nutrients on brain health is but one example of the credible work that is being done. According to these two scientists, we can treat a variety of mental health conditions using only high-dose multi-nutrient supplements. These supplements have been shown to be as effective, or more effective, than traditional methods of treating mental health issues, such as psychological counselling and pharmaceutical medication (The Better Brain, 2021).

Kaplan is quick to point out that nutrition should be the baseline approach, the first recourse, in our health system, when it comes to treating mental health issues such as depression, ADHD, anxiety, and more. If that doesn’t work, then we can begin to explore psychological treatment options, and only after that should we consider using medication. What I find surprising about this is that we have a conclusion well-supported by scientific studies that costs less than conventional treatment, has an equal or higher success rate at treating these issues, and is much less invasive for the patient, with almost no side effects (sometimes patients report minor headaches and stomach cramps). Yet, we don’t use it.

When you start digging through the rabbit hole that is nutrition on the internet, it becomes apparent that we are using a 20th century health model of locate and medicate, en masse, in order to treat the symptoms of disease. A holistic approach remains outside the norm, just like approaches which try to solve health issues using fewer pharmaceutical products, and larger changes in diet and lifestyle.

I often asked myself, after doing all this reading, why we have not yet changed our approach. Why is medication as a first recourse still the norm, when the evidence points to better solutions? If we take this outside of the health context for a moment, we might be able to see that scientific developments have quite a long lag time between when the discovery is made, and the paradigm established, to when the idea is accepted by society and becomes the norm. The same can be seen with other discoveries, which have taken time to become ‘mainstream knowledge.’

Does this point to a failure on the part of science, in terms of communicating its results to the general population; a failure on the part of the general population to understand and keep updated on the results of science; some kind of stickiness in our current systems that privilege current options over new ideas; or something entirely different?

I believe it’s possible to argue for all three of the options above, without being a ‘conspiracy theorist’ and distrusting certain areas of our society with money and/or power. Science does find it difficult to integrate itself and its results into modern society, because it is constantly changing and evolving, and because it’s very technical and requires specialist knowledge to understand. The general population find it difficult to keep up with scientific information because it’s often not part of their news feeds, and lies outside their immediate sphere of interest. We only go looking for research on something if we are particularly interested in it, but to remain up-to-date on the whole scientific project is undesirable and likely a waste of time. And finally, there is some kind of stickiness in our system. This could be attributed to pharmaceutical lobbies who fund and publish results to support their products and drown out the faint whistle of alternative approaches, but also a stickiness in terms of the way doctors and general practitioners practice medicine — many of them are trained when they are young, and unless they are particularly interested in developments in their field, will treat their patients using the same knowledge and methodologies they were taught at university.

This means that for a methodology such as science, which relies on the ability to constantly update our knowledge as we discover and observe more about the world, it is only when we have a paradigm shift in the general culture that we are able to import a large body of new scientific knowledge into the public sphere. The stickiness and rigidity of the flow of new information into public knowledge limits the degree to which anyone non-scientific is updated. And that, in an age where information is important, and where we really should be making our own conclusions based on the evidence we find, is a particularly worrying thing.

As a result of the research and thinking I’ve done in relation to the connection between mental health and nutrition, I have started logging my nutrient intake, for a month, using the free app Cronometer. It’s easy to input each meal you have using the quantities of ingredients you use, and then you can track the amount of both macro and micro nutrients that are in your diet. You might be surprised, like I was, to learn that I was almost certainly deficient in vitamin B12, and that my ratio of Omega-6:Omega-3 fatty acids was almost 4 times what it should be. This knowledge means I can act in ways that will prevent the onset of disease further down the track. B12 is crucial for cell development and repair, and increased consumption of Omega-3 fatty acids (in chia seeds, hemp seeds, flax seeds, and fish) reduces the risk of almost all cardiovascular diseases, and there is preliminary evidence to support positive effects in many other areas of health. I would thoroughly recommend you to use this app and improve your nutrition — your body will thank you for it!

So, what can we learn from this? Simply that we must do more research and be more informed? In the space of health and wellbeing and nutrition, I think the answer is yes. It’s crucial that every adult know the basics of nutrition, understand how the body works, and see the body as one moving part with multiple necessary pieces. This is not taught in school unless one takes biology classes, and there is no other place where we might encounter nutritional information, until we get sick. That, in my eyes, seems to be a great injustice.

Jack Goldingham Newsom is the Chief Objektioner and Founder of the Objektion Project. We help people, social enterprises, and volunteer organisations to carry out their mission more effectively by challenging current ways of thinking, and developing new frameworks to support their vision.
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Objektion

I work with imagination and creativity, with organisations who want to create meaningful change. The world needs more thinkers, I aim to be one of them.