Foods are complex and come from living plants and animals. Each food is a food matrix, made up of the thousands of substances naturally occurring in that food. Though an orange is an excellent source of vitamin C, there is more to that orange than just this one vitamin. Extract the vitamin C from the orange and it is not as powerful as when it works in synergy with all the other essential components found in the whole food. That is the argument for focusing on food rather than single nutrients.
But the complexity of food goes much further. Add that orange to a meal and the potential for interaction and the potential health benefits can grow either positively or negatively. The Mediterranean Diet is a good example of a collection of foods that have a positive impact on health. The Mediterranean Diet includes whole grains, nuts, olives, olive oil, fish, beans and plenty of fruits and vegetables. From a nutrition science perspective this diet is rich in omega-3 fats, antioxidants, phenolics, fiber, and numerous other phytochemicals in much higher amounts than would be found in a typical western diet. The western diet would have more processed foods, more saturated fat, fewer fruits and vegetables, and more sugar. Both might contain alcohol. In the Mediterranean Diet the addition of alcohol does not adversely affect the benefits of the diet and when combined with the healthy choices, it may actually enhance the overall health benefits. Add alcohol to the western diet and the effects on health are at best neutral and might be negative. Is it the alcohol that makes one diet healthy and the other not? That answer is too simplistic and focuses on a single food. It is far more likely that the alcohol acts in synergy with the other foods in each diet to promote either a positive or negative health effect.
It is very hard to study diets in free living individuals. The amount of variables is enormous and the compliance by subjects is hard to verify. Many times the findings from these observational food studies are turned into more specific nutrient studies, which are easier to control and the outcomes are easier to quantify. But when this is done the results may be misleading.
Ancel Keys and fellow researchers made early classic observations that diet patterns play an important role in chronic disease. They observed that the Mediterranean diet was healthy. People eating this type of diet had lower cholesterol and ate less saturated fat. Subsequent studies tried to unravel the diet-cholesterol association. This work became the foundation for the public health policy in the US for the next 50 years. People were urged to follow a low fat, low cholesterol eating plan. The positive qualities of the plant foods found in the Mediterranean diet were, for the most part ignored, until recently.
Today we know that many foods other than fats impact cholesterol and not all fats are bad. Soy proteins, viscous fibers found in foods like oatmeal, and nuts all help to lower cholesterol and are heart healthy. But, during the time the public health message was focused on fat not food, the American diet shifted to one that had more processed foods and was higher in sugar and refined carbohydrate foods. Beans, fruits and vegetables never received the prominence they deserved. Americans got heavier and chronic disease risk shifted to problems related to obesity and type 2 diabetes while heart disease continued to be the number one cause of death in the US.
So putting your best fork forward is a great message for National Nutrition Month. We need more research based on whole foods because the focus on single nutrients tends to oversimplify a very complex food matrix. Good food choices reduce disease risk and poor food choices increase the risk. What’s on your fork today? Choose wisely because your future health depends on it.
© NRH Nutrition Consultants, Inc.
Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian and the author of 30 books. Available as eBooks from iTunes and Kindle/Amazon:
Healthy Wholefoods Counter
Complete Food Counter
Fat and Cholesterol Counter
Available in print from Gallery Books:
Most Complete Food Counter, 3rd Ed.
Your Complete Food Counter App: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/your-complete-food-counter/id444558777?mt=8
For more information on Jo-Ann and her books, go to: www.TheNutritionExperts.com.