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Do we overthink nutrition?

These days it seems that you can hardly pick up a newspaper or magazine without reading something about nutrition.

We read about how we need lots of calcium, iron and omega 3, how certain foods are good for us because they contain specific vitamins and minerals. All the while, as a society we are getting sicker and sicker.

But is it possible that all of this information about nutrition is actually making our judgements about healthy eating worse? And if so, why?

I believe that the answer to the first question is a big loud YES.  The answers to why are fairly simple but you have to take a step back first and ask yourself a different question.

Are the media and governments really informing us about nutrition?

They may genuinely believe that they are, but in most cases they are actually informing us about individual nutrients.  Nutrients and nutrition are not the same thing.

This might sound strange but it is a really fundamental distinction that we need to make.

Nutrients do not naturally exist in isolation, and our bodies use complex combinations of nutrients to perform functions that are still not fully understood.  In other words, the whole is much more than the sum of its parts.

Why is it a problem?

When we start talking about individual nutrients we create two big problems:

  1. We lose sight of the big picture
  2. We have so many nutrients to think about that we get confused

Reductionism leads to poor judgement

In his new book Whole, world leading nutritional scientist T Colin Campbell states that 100g of fresh apple contains about 5.7mg of vitamin C, and yet it has a vitamin C-like activity equivalent to around 1500mg of Vitamin C.  That’s an astonishing 263 times the potency of the isolated chemical!  If you listened to common advice you might think that a 500mg vitamin C tablet is 100 times better for you than an apple, but when you look at the whole you realise that this is not at all the case.  And this example doesn’t even factor in all the other benefits of other enzymes, fibre and phytonutrients in the apple.

Campbell argues that an obsession with reductionist science has led us to lose sight of what real nutrition means and allowed the food and supplement industry to sell us ‘health’ foods that are anything but healthy.

We seem to have lost the plot

In a recent article in the Guardian, Tim Lott makes the case that we should stop worrying about individual foods and find healthy foods that we and our children do enjoy eating. In his case, his daughter hated peas, salad and green vegetables and as a parent he felt it essential to make her eat them, even if it meant hiding them in other less healthy foods or smothering them in sauces. But maybe he could have just focused on feeding her the fruits and veggies that she did like instead of making the ones she didn’t like less healthy.  He gives the example of the Kitava tribe in Papua New Guinea who eat a diet of just sweet potato, coconut and some fish and yet have virtually no incidences of western diseases. Yet they eat no green vegetables at all.  That’s right – zero!

When you look around the world at the diets of indigenous tribes and poor rural communities, they are often far far healthier than us westerners despite their limited access to healthcare and nutritional education.  They tend to follow the simple concept that the key to healthy eating is simply to eat whole foods, mostly plants.

Real nutrition is simple

It is a simple concept, and well proven by a huge body of scientific research. If you understand the concept of whole foods, and you know what a plant is, then making good decisions about healthy eating becomes really simple.

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