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Philosophical Reflection on Holism and Reductionism in Nutrition Science †

Chair Group Communication, Philosophy and Technology, Wageningen University & Research, 6708 WE Wageningen, The Netherlands
Departement Filosofie en Religiewetenschap, Utrecht University, 3508 TC Utrecht, The Netherlands
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Presented at the 14th European Nutrition Conference FENS 2023, Belgrade, Serbia, 14–17 November 2023.
Proceedings 2023, 91(1), 48;
Published: 16 November 2023
(This article belongs to the Proceedings of The 14th European Nutrition Conference FENS 2023)


Nutrition, as a science, is facing challenges. While issues regarding obesity, chronic diseases, and sustainability are becoming more pressing, nutrition science is encountering limitations regarding novel insights, trust, and social relevance. In order to move forward, we need to innovate the field and explore new perspectives. Current nutrition research has mainly employed a reductionist approach, which has been very successful in the past. However, reductionism shows limitations when addressing the problems we face today. The addressed weaknesses of reductionism include (1) the questionable assumption that nutrients and calories are exchangeable between foods, (2) the tendency of reductionism to oversimplify reality, which has consequences for complex concepts such as health and nutrition, and (3) the focus on details, which could undermine the aim of nutrition science: creating optimal dietary guidelines for the promotion of health and prevention of disease. Holism offers an alternative perspective that could complement these limitations, on the condition that they are similar enough on an ontological and epistemological level. Holistic approaches to health appear in eastern philosophies (ayurveda), but also in modern western nutrition approaches (dietary patterns). These two holistic approaches can complement reductionism in the following ways: (1) Holistic approaches like ayurveda and dietary patterns provide different nutritional knowledge by considering multiple factors that affect food’s health potential, in addition to only nutrients and calories. Some of these factors include food processing, food matrix/structure, food combinations, food compatibility, and nutrient interaction. (2) Holism can complement the reductionistic tendency to oversimplify reality by including subjective, individual, and holistic aspects of health into nutrition research and embracing the complexity of food-chronic disease relationships. (3) Holism has the potential to improve the practical relevance and comprehensibility of nutrition science. All presented results were based on the existing literature, found in Scopus and PubMed. To conclude, this study explores how holism can complement the limitations of reductionism, and as a result, reduce the overemphasis on reductionism as a research approach, which will hopefully promote progress and inspire the future of nutrition science.

Author Contributions

Content, E.B. and supervision, M.V. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research received no external funding.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Not applicable.

Informed Consent Statement

Not applicable.

Data Availability Statement

This abstract is retrieved from the Bachelor thesis of E.B. written at Wageningen University, 2022. Contact the author for the pdf.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.
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MDPI and ACS Style

Baltussen, E.; Verweij, M. Philosophical Reflection on Holism and Reductionism in Nutrition Science. Proceedings 2023, 91, 48.

AMA Style

Baltussen E, Verweij M. Philosophical Reflection on Holism and Reductionism in Nutrition Science. Proceedings. 2023; 91(1):48.

Chicago/Turabian Style

Baltussen, Eline, and Marcel Verweij. 2023. "Philosophical Reflection on Holism and Reductionism in Nutrition Science" Proceedings 91, no. 1: 48.

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