Tuesday, August 17, 2010

In Which the Scientists Discover Food

So this month's Journal of the American Medical Association has a commentary written by two Harvard nutrition experts advocating, of all things, changing the focus of our dietary guidelines from nutrients to foods. According to the authors, "the evidence now demonstrates the major limitations of nutrient-based metrics for prevention of chronic disease" (Mozaffarian and Ludwig, 2010, p. 681). For instance, they cite accumulating research suggesting that fat and even saturated fat intake is pretty much unrelated to the risk of developing chronic illnesses like heart disease.

They go on to say that "in contrast with discrete nutrients, specific foods and dietary patterns substantially affect chronic disease risk, as shown by controlled trials of risk factors and prospective cohorts of disease endpoints. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts are consistently associated with lower risk of disease" (p. 681). Fish also get an evidence-based thumbs up. Meanwhile, research shows that highly processed foods are associated with an increased risk of chronic diseases, and the authors go on to suggest that we need to understand that the health consequences of consuming different foods probably reflect complicated interactions of different nutrients within each food, the way food is prepared, and combinations of foods within larger dietary patterns. Not to mention that "the greater the focus on nutrients, the less healthful foods have become" (p. 682).

Sound familiar? It's kind of neat to see the same ideas that Pollan highlights making their way into mainstream medical science. Here's hoping the U.S. dietary guidelines, which I think are due to be revised this year, start adopting food-centered rather than nutrient-centered guidelines, as these authors advocate. It seems like changing the language we use to talk about and evaluate health and nutrition from nutrients to foods could go a long way toward changing the way we eat.

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