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2 + 2 = 8
You’ve heard the phrase, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” right? Well, this really holds true in the nutrition world. For example, eating a whole grain - defined as a grain that still contains all of its “parts” – the bran (outer coating), germ (the part that sprouts into a new plant), and endosperm (food for the germ) provides far greater benefits than eating just the bran alone. And the benefits are enhanced even more if whole grains are consumed as part of a diet high in plant-based foods. Why? We’re not 100% sure yet, but we know something’s at play.
This theory, called food synergy, probably explains why a just released study found that taking antioxidant supplements does not help slow the buildup of artery-clogging plaques and reduce the risk of heart disease. Many, many studies do consistently show that a higher intake of produce and other plant foods lowers risk, but plant foods contain a whole lot more than antioxidants. There are thousands of other natural substances in fruits, veggies, whole grains, spices, and herbs, and the combination of them, along with other factors (i.e. less of the not so good stuff like saturated fat) seem to work together, and possibly enhance each other to protect us from disease.
Isolating one component out (like antioxidants) is called reductionism, and it just doesn’t seem to work. Popping an antioxidant pill is like taking Mickey Mouse out of Disney World and leaving the rest behind – it’s just not the same! That’s why most registered dietitians (myself included) advocate a food first philosophy (after all, we’re called dietitians, not supplementitians).
Another great example of food synergy involves osteoporosis. While calcium is the main mineral that provides structure to bone, many other nutrients affect bone density including vitamin D, protein, sodium, potassium, vitamins K and C, and possibly even some phytochemicals. So taking calcium alone and ignoring the rest of your diet won’t guarantee prevention.
In fact, the list of more simple nutrient interactions dietitians must learn about in college include the good:
-Vitamin C helps absorb more iron from plant foods
-Fat helps absorb vitamin A (as well as beta carotene and other carotenoids like lycopene), and vitamins D, E, and K
-Selenium and vitamin E work as an antioxidant team and vitamin C helps recharge E
And not so good:
-Too much zinc can interfere with copper absorption
-Too much calcium can interfere with iron absorption
This list isn’t complete, and doesn’t even include interactions between nutrients and herbs. So, I guess my message today is: oversimplifying nutrition science is missing the forest for the trees – big time! For right now, the best strategy seems to be getting nutrition from a wide variety of whole foods, not from a bottle.