What should we eat?
Six months ago, almost to the day, I wrote a piece called BIG FAT FARCE, examining the conflicting positions of some of the world’s most eminent dieticians and researchers over fats and the risk of heart disease. I concluded the piece by addressing the question that most people want answered; what should we eat?
Recent studies have supported my assessment, but as I reported at the time, in an editorial accompanying a study led by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Canadian experts Russell de Souza and Sonia Anand stated the main message should be that it is the overall pattern of one’s diet that matters to health, with it important to aim for a general healthy diet, rather than focus on specific nutrients, because “dietary patterns might be more consistent with how people consume nutrients, and these patterns can predict heart disease risk.”
Now an expert panel consisting of 18 experts in epidemiology, food, nutrition and medical science that was brought together for a workshop organized by the University of Copenhagen in collaboration with the University of Reading in September 2016 has added their weight to supporting this proposition.
Their discussions focused on dairy products, and on how the complex mixture of nutrients and bioactive substances, such as minerals and vitamins, can affect digestion and ultimately change the overall nutritional and health properties of a particular food.
Traditionally investigations of a foodstuff’s impact on human health focus on the content of individual nutrients such as proteins, fats, carbohydrates, etc. However, newer research shows that the health effects of a food product cannot be determined on the basis on the individual nutrients it contains. The food must be evaluated as a whole — together with other foods eaten at the same time.
As Russell de Souza and Sonia Anand had already grasped, we consume foods and meals — not nutrients.
Postdoc Tanja Kongerslev Thorning, PhD, from the Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports at the University of Copenhagen, is first author of the report. She explained to Science Daily that scientists have long wondered why the actual effects of a food are at variance with the effects expected on the basis of its nutrition content. They have therefore started to look at things in a wider context: “When we eat, we do not consume individual nutrients. We eat the whole food. Either alone or together with other foods in a meal. It therefore seems obvious that we should assess food products in context.”
Ultimately this means that the composition of a food can alter the properties of the nutrients contained within it, in ways that cannot be predicted on the basis of an analysis of the individual nutrients. For example, dairy products such as cheese have a lesser effect on blood cholesterol than would be predicted on the basis of their content of saturated fat. There are interactions between the nutrients in a food that are significant for its overall effect on health. As a result, some foods may be better for us, or less healthy, than is currently believed.
The panel concluded, among other things, that yoghurt and cheese have a different and more beneficial effect on bone health, body weight, the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, than would be expected on the basis of their saturated fat and calcium content.
Science Daily further reported that the Head of Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports at the University of Copenhagen, professor Arne Astrup, who chaired the workshop, said, “In contrast to current recommendations that essentially ban full-fat cheese, current research clearly demonstrate important health benefits of cheese for prevention of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancers. All the positive effects are due to a complex interaction between beneficial bacteria, minerals and bio-active cheese ingredients.”
The findings are published in the article Whole dairy matrix or single nutrients in assessment of health effects: current evidence and knowledge gaps in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
In practice this further supports the contention that we should embrace variety and balance, and focus on real food in the overall pattern of our eating habits. A healthy routine should comprise; lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, poultry and fish, not forgetting a daily probiotic for gut health. Too much processed food, including processed meat, sugary breakfast cereals, lots of white bread, potatoes and sugary drinks – this is a diet that people should try to curtail.
Ultimately a healthy diet is about eating a combination of foods that are good for us. Foods that provide our body with nutrition, not just energy; that help boost our immune system, as well as helping us to avoid becoming overweight and increasing our risk of inflammation and chronic disease.
Further studies will delve much further into the combinations of real food that work best, but clearly the sum of the parts is bigger than the whole, while the idea of using calories to determine our diets must surely be consigned to history. Areas of nutrition science will be rethought, in the meantime the best we can do is to decrease the amount of processed food we consume versus real food, embracing as wide a variety as possible.
To help out, we have developed Just Routine. An easy way to adopt a healthier eating regime, it provides recipes to help make eating real food fun, and of course, just routine. Go ahead – take a look – click here to download Just Routine, the real food app
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