In 2013, in my first semester of graduate school, I had an idea:
“What if we could trace the effects of a single nutrient from physics/chemistry/geology up through biology, past neuroscience and behavior, through all other areas of the university, from economics and art history to geopolitics and beyond?”
Not until 2017 did I realize this is what the true scientific study of “nutrition” attempts to do. It simply lacks an adequate theory to make testable predictions and unify other related scientific fields.
Table of Contents
- Current Definition and Problems
- From “Vitamins and Minerals” to “Minerals and Molecules”
- A New Theory
- The Future: Unifying the Scientific Disciplines
- Update Log
Current Definition and Problems
Here are a few conventional definitions of the word “nutrition” from the web:
the act or process of nourishing or being nourished; specifically : the sum of the processes by which an animal or plant takes in and utilizes food substances. / foods that are necessary for human nutrition
the process by which the body takes in and uses food, esp. food that it needs to stay healthy, or the scientific study of this process
There are several major problems with these and other standard definitions of the word nutrition:
- They use the word “food” or “nourish,” which itself, being from the Latin nutrire, centers around the idea of “food.” This may be useful for those with more philosophical conceptions of the word “food.” Unfortunately, in modern America and conventional “nutrition science,” the word food is usually conceptually disconnected from the concepts of air and water, even more necessary to nourish life. Modern “nutrition science” essentially ignores air, water, and their nourishment.
- They often refer anthropomorphically to the human body, as opposed to the biological concept of the cell (or another accepted model) or the concept of any multicellular organism.
- They fail to account for essential subatomic particles and processes.
From “Vitamins and Minerals” to “Minerals and Molecules”
Worse, the term “vitamin” has no good scientific definition, and the archaic “vitamin and mineral” model is outdated and nearly useless. Here are three reasons:
- “Vitamin D” (cholecalciferol) has been well known for decades, scientifically, to be a hormone. It is not an essential dietary nutrient; rather, it is an essential hormone synthesized by human skin when cellular processes use light to convert the molecule 7-Dehydrocholesterol to “previtamin D3” and later cholecalciferol itself. However, the subatomic particle known as a photon (at 290-315 nm) is a necessary nutrient, absorbed in humans by the skin and used as noted.
- Most “vitamins” are actually groups of molecules, such as the A group, the B group, the E group, and the K group. To my knowledge, only “vitamin C” refers a single individual molecule: ascorbic acid.
- With each passing year, it appears that there are other “essential molecules,” such as the so-called pseudovitamins and phytonutrients, potentially known molecules like caffeine, nicotine, or DMT, and many others. Given the complexity and ability of the various micro-biomes to evolve and synthesize molecules based on other nutritional inputs, some humans may have bacterial synthesis of essential dietary molecules whereas others do not, so the word “essential” is quite problematic. However, there are certainly undocumented essential molecules (just as there are undocumented essential elements).
We must therefore move towards a better categorization of nutrients.
While subatomic particles must be technically included (below), the phrases “atoms and molecules” or “elements and molecules” are scientifically accurate phrases to replace “vitamin and mineral.” However, I suggest the phrase “minerals and molecules” for the public, using the periodic table for the former, and reminding the public that a molecule is simple an individual arrangement of bonded atoms. The term “mineral” from “minerals and molecules” would be technically inaccurate, since elements on the periodic table like Carbon and Nitrogen are not minerals per se, but “minerals and molecules” serves as a better phrase for public adoption to promote education and awareness. (Unless the public forgets that for humans, the photon is also an essential subatomic nutrient.)
While these are good starting points to inform public opinion, we still need acceptable scientific definitions in order to make testable hypotheses, to carry nutrition into the modern century, and to prepare it for the next.
A New Theory
What is the definition of nutrition?
Nutrition is the study of nutrients and their effects.
What is the definition of a nutrient?
A nutrient is a particle without which an acid-based (amino acid, nucleic acid, etc.) function or reaction cannot occur. For the public: a nutrient is a particle (subatomic, atomic, or molecular) used in a biochemical reaction.
How can we categorize nutrients?
Nutrients should be categorized based on standard models from the physical sciences:
- subatomic particles (photons, electrons, protons, etc.),
- atoms (lithium, oxygen, sodium, sulfur, etc.),
- molecules (ascorbic acid, α-Linolenic acid, etc.),
- and even (optionally) whole cellular organelles and/or organisms.
- Note: It does not seem likely that whole organelles or cells are used as “nutrients” without being broken down into component macro-molecules and smaller particles first. However, from another perspective, it not only seems likely, it seems a historical biological fact: the “first” mitochondrion was likely an independent cellular entity, consumed or assimilated, in a sense, as a mutually-beneficial symbiotic “nutrient.” Perspective indeed!
Naming a Theory
Quantum or quanta may have a few varying definitions in the physical sciences. While the word comes from the Latin quantus, meaning “how great,” in the early 1900s it came to signify the smallest measurable unit. This is especially true of the electromagnetic force, as quantum came to signify the smallest relevant particles: a single electron, a “fermion” with mass; or the photon, a type of “boson,” the massless force-carrier of the electromagnetic force. Quantum often now refers to both indivisible sub-atomic particles and the unpredictable nature of studying these particles.
Quantum is thus a perfect, relevant word for a unifying physical theory of nutrition, although it need not be used only to refer to the electron, photon, and other subatomic particles. Here, the word quantum can be used in a general sense: the smallest useful subatomic, atomic, or molecular unit of nutrition. This is critical, because these three divisions must form the foundation of the future study of nutrition; for example: an electron or photon, versus a single lithium or sodium ion, versus molecular oxygen or caffeine. While larger molecular elements — long chain fatty acids and peptides — are obviously nutrients, they work well under the third molecular division, studied individually or collectively.
As such, a unifying theory of nutrition should be called quantum nutrition or quantum nutrition theory.
This presents numerous questions (thousands, actually). For example:
- How can we define and differentiate an “essential” or “beneficial” nutrient?
- What is the difference between a nutrient and a drug?
- How can we organize nutritional molecules into useful categories?
- Might there be an organizational approach similar to the standard model or periodic table for these molecules?
- How can we account for modern, unique, synthesized molecules, which often have negative effects on whole organisms?
- How can we define “life” and account for entropic decay?
- What individual diseases, cultural adaptations, and societal challenges are predicted?
The Future: Unifying the Scientific Disciplines
From physical vs. social sciences towards a unified concept of the sciences
Because nutrients influence all known biochemical processes, nutrition connects physics, chemistry, and other physical sciences to biology, psychology, and all associated scientific disciplines, such as economics, culture, religion, and philosophy. An effective model of nutrition bridges the “gap” between the so-called natural vs. social sciences, allowing, at long last, us to retire the concept of “social sciences.” At some point this century, an effective model of nutrition will allow us to make predictions based on the effects of nutritional photon intake on economic decision making in northern latitudes; or, if all else could be controlled for, nutrition could make predictions on how varying soil levels of magnesium in Northwest vs. Southeast African populations affects leadership styles of elected politicians. This may take decades, of course, but the basic ideas already exist.
We need only connect the dots.
Where to begin?