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Does the science of nutrition need a makeover?



Controversial book The China Study was Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s mega white paper presenting his extensive research on why we should eat more plants (and less animal products) for good health. (Didn’t read it? Here’s the Cliff Notes.)

His newest book, Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition (which has caused just as much of a stir), is more of a philosophical argument infused with heavy science, and it proposes that most of the research that our current understanding of nutrition is based on is missing the point.

Why? Nutrition science, Dr. Campbell says, currently focuses squarely on individual nutrients, an approach he calls the “reductionist paradigm.” This narrow focus overshadows a more important end point: how whole foods actually affect the health of the people that eat them.

“When you’re looking through a microscope, either literally or metaphorically, you can’t see the big picture,” he says. In other words, there’s too much emphasis on how much fiber and vitamin C you’re getting when you eat an apple, and not enough research on whether or not eating that apple is actually making you live a longer, more vibrant life.

We dove into Whole (which also goes into how reductionism affects medicine, health care, social policy, and much more) to bring you five major points Dr. Campbell uses to make his case for why the way we look at nutrition now isn’t cutting it:

Whole1. Food is more important than nutrients. “The whole apple is far more than the sum of its parts,” Dr. Campbell says. Looking at a food as just a list of calories, protein, calcium, and Vitamin C, etc., is not enough. Taking a supplement for each nutrient in an apple, for example, is not the same as eating one (see numbers 2-4).

2. Nutrients in food vary immensely. So, if you want to eat exactly 1,000 mg of calcium each day, good luck. One handful of beans does not contain the same amount as another, even if nutrition facts claim it does. Beta-carotene in some foods can vary three- to nineteen-fold, and one study found it varied forty-fold in peaches.

3. Nutrients affect each other, big time. Magnesium influences the effects of iron, protein affects zinc, vitamin A acts differently when paired with vitamin D, and so on. So focusing on getting each nutrient is infinitely more complicated than taking a supplement for each one.

4. What your body does with the nutrients is key. “The food we put in our mouths doesn’t control our nutrition—not entirely,” he says. “What our bodies do with that food does.” So if you ingest 500 mg of vitamin C, that doesn’t mean your body is going to utilize all of it.

5. Your body knows what it’s doing! Dr. Campbell argues that while the complexities of nutrient interactions sound complicated and discouraging, the body is actually doing a great job at making what you eat work for you. In the end, he says, you can eat a whole foods, plant-based diet that’s heavy on veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, and legumes and short on processed foods, animal products, added salt, oil, and sugar, with balanced carbs, protein, and fat, and the rest will take care of itself. “In short, your body is constantly monitoring and adjusting the concentrations of nutrients in the food you consume in order to turn massive variability into the narrower ranges it requires to be healthy.” —Lisa Elaine Held

Agree in a big way? Think Dr. Campbell’s philosophy is bogus? Weigh in in the Comments, below!