Ever had the situation where you say you’re tired for example, and someone suggests you need to eat more iron rich foods? Sadly it’s just not that easy. This article will run through some examples of why we can’t simply judge foods on an isolated nutrient.
Historically, meat (especially processed meat) was identified as unhealthy for specifically it’s high cholesterol and saturated fat content (Connor et al., 1986). The general advice from the scientific community and thus policymakers was for people to avoid processed meat, purely based on research about those two nutrients. However, it’s not that simple. Red meat has one of the highest bioavailability of minerals like iron, so by avoiding it due to it’s content of one nutrient you’re reducing your intake of another highly beneficial nutrient. Luckily our perspective and knowledge of nutrients has shifted toward the holistic diet, but this example just shows how polarising a single nutrient approach to nutrition can be.
Similarly, white potatoes are good sources of potassium and vitamin C, but they also cause blood sugar spikes due to their high glycemic index (Mozaffarian, 2016, p197). With carbohydrates on average making up over half of our caloric intake, increasing this further for that single nutrient could be detrimental to one’s health. Whereas, consuming a range of food with multiple vitamins and minerals would provide better health outcomes.
Most recommendations around dairy intake are based on calcium and vitamin D. Many companies push yoghurt or milk as a great source of calcium. However, multiple pieces of research have shown the interrelated interactions between calcium and vitamin D within the body – one won’t function without the other. Moreover, long term randomised trials have concluded that calcium supplements with or without vitamin D have adverse outcomes (such as increasing the risk of an MI) (Mozaffarian, 2016). Therefore, taking a tunnel vision approach to nutrition and just eating foods high in calcium but not factoring in vitamin D might not have the desired outcomes. Vitamins and minerals work together within our bodies, so we can not take a siloed approach.
We’ve probably all heard that the Mediterranean diet (e.g. richer in fruits, vegetables, nuts) is one of the most healthy diets around. And as you can guess that’s not down to one nutrient that’s found in it. It’s a combination of the different nutrients from the foods and the overall diet pattern that makes it so healthy.
Whilst single nutrients are vital for our body, it’s more beneficial to consume a balanced diet.
Connor, S., Artaud-Wild, S., Classick-Kohn, C., Gustafson, J., Flavell, D., Hatcher, L. and Connor, W., 1986. The Cholesterol / Saturated-Fat Index: An indication of the hypercholesterolaemic and atherogenic potential of food. The Lancet, 327(8492), pp.1229-1232.
Mozaffarian, D., 2016. Dietary and Policy Priorities for Cardiovascular Disease, Diabetes, and Obesity. Circulation, 133(2), pp.187-225.