I recently attended the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) meeting in Minneapolis, which is the largest meeting of its kind in the world. Over 6,000 sports clinicians, exercise scientists and sports nutritionists from virtually every continent attend the meeting each year.
Spending most of my time in the nutrition community as I do, I was particularly interested in the multiple sessions that dealt with the nutritional needs of active people throughout their lifespan, as well as those of the serious athlete. And while there were a number of excellent, informative sessions that addressed the topic, I was struck by the lack of whole food examples expressed by the speakers. Foods were discussed almost exclusively as their constituent parts: carbohydrates, fats and proteins. And most other discussions regarding physical activity and nutrition centered around the use of supplements and extracts.
This got me thinking about how reductionist we remain in our thinking about nutrition, not only for athletes but for the public at large. Despite recent admonitions from various health organizations and government agencies to focus on food-based dietary guidelines, and individual health experts to view the foods we eat as more than the sum of their individual nutrient parts, and our dietary patterns of greater importance than any one or two food items we consume, our inclination remains to label foods as good or bad, single nutrients as healthy or unhealthy. And in doing so I believe we lose the essence of what “healthy eating” really means.
Is it so important to avoid foods that contain saturated fat if your overall diet provides moderate fat intake? I don’t think so. And do we really need to worry about a food that has a high glycemic index when that food is combined with other meal components that can modulate the glycemic response? Not really.
Fixating on individual foods or nutrients in the diet can also make folks lose site of the synergies that can exist between foods (e.g., the vitamin C in your orange juice that can help with the absorption of the iron in your egg), as well as the countless other nutrients, some known and some yet-to-be-discovered, that may be missing from your diet if you shun whole food sources or food groups.
And while my aim here is not to bore the nutrition-savvy reader with elementary information, or the non-inititated person with intuitively obvious insights, it is worth pointing out that even the experts among us – the folks who present their data at health and nutrition meetings, can fall prey to this sort of reductionist thinking. Just feeding carbohydrate to an active person shouldn’t be enough. What is the source of the carbs? What other nutrients does this source contain? What does the rest of the person’s diet look like? What else did the person consume with the carb source? These are all important questions to fully ascertain the impact of diet on performance, or health, or whatever the endpoint in-question happens to be.
The role of nutrition on overall health is rapidly evolving. On a near-daily basis, scientists are discovering more about the genetic anomalies that allow one person to consume saturated fat with impunity, and another to grapple with elevated heart disease risk despite shunning foods and nutrients that purportedly promote disease. But even as these discoveries become abundant enough in the future to be incorporated into clinical practice, and we are more and more able to identify the foods that will work best for our own individual needs, I’m convinced that totality of diet will continue to matter most. No one food or nutrient will cure us, or kill us. But the subtle synergies and interactions between the nutrients in the whole foods we consume will continue to be the most telling factor on the impact of diet in health and performance.
Mitch Kanter, Ph.D., is the Chief Science Office at FoodMinds and head of our Nutrition Health and Wellness Science capability.