Here’s a shot of one of Monet’s water lilies paintings in the Orangerie in Paris. Look at the size of it, and stand back and see it as a whole.
Now walk towards it and look at part of it close up.
Isn’t that amazing?
How different the details look from the whole painting! In fact, one of the things which makes such a big impression on me in the Orangerie is just this difference – how does a human being manage to create such a fabulous, whole image which works the way this work by placing small brush-fulls of paint one after the other.
It’s this kind of art which often comes to my mind when I think about the need to understand anything in its details and at the same time in its wholeness.
Recently, BBC Two, made an episode of “Trust me I’m a doctor” focusing on the question of is it possible to reduce your cholesterol level through diet. For the programme the presenter look at three different approaches – sticking to a low fat diet, not changing the diet but adding daily oats, and not changing the diet but adding daily almonds. As an extra, he, himself, did all three (referred to as the “portfolio diet”).
A number of interesting things – including significant levels of reduction of cholesterol in many of the volunteers – the biggest effect being in the presenter himself (I’ll return to that later)
In the almond eating group they concluded there was no over all change – because the average of the group showed little change. In fact, this averaging out effect obscured the reality of what happened – some people in that group experienced a drop in their cholesterol level, but in some it actually increased.
For me, this is one of the most interesting findings.
First of all it shows how averaging out and taking only whole group effects obscures the reality of what happens for individuals.
Second, it shows that you can’t take a simple, linear approach to the complexity of a human being – you can’t just add a bit of this or subtract a bit of that and see the same specific effect in every single person. We are all different. And that uniqueness extends to the different results of the “same treatments” (including elements of the diet) in different people. I think the kind of reports which suggest that some particular foodstuff is “bad” or “good” are pretty much always over-simplistic – to the point of being nonsense.
Third, it shows how the “same treatment” can have directly opposite effects in different individuals. We find the same with many forms of treatment – what has a certain effect in some, can induce the exactly opposite effect in others.
So, this part of the programme confirmed for me that we are all different and if we want to help individuals we must always, but always, pay attention to individual experience – it’s no good saying “this works but that doesn’t” based simply on statistical interpretations. Ultimately we have to come back to the reality of a human being’s experience.
The other striking element for me is what the presenter did himself – this “portfolio” diet – which actually consisted of taking a balanced and combined approach.
Time and again when I read about diets I find myself thinking about Michael Pollan’s food rules – “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much”.
There are no magic bullets.
Not drugs. And not specific foods.