Whole Foods Diet: Beyond Vitamins

Whole Foods Diet Beyond Vitamins
A general health recommendation espoused by doctors and other healthcare practitioners is to take a daily multivitamin. The idea is that a daily supplement is insurance for the nutrients that we aren’t getting from our diet. The vitamin makers make the point that food today isn’t nutrient-rich because of soil depletion. What fills our grocery bags today are oversized fruits and vegetables that lack real nutrition. The industrial smokestacks spewing free radical producing contaminants, the argument continues, make it even more essential to add antioxidants into our bodies. These are all good points. A bigger question, however, is whether taking vitamins give us a false assurance that we are covering our bases. Do vitamins foster poor food choices and sway us from eating a whole foods diet?

It seems plausible that we can create something whole by assembling all of the parts. When human beings are fed a diet comprised of all of the known nutrients necessary for health not as food, but as isolated nutrients they fare poorly. While it’s not commonly discussed, the truth is that we lack many of the answers. Food is extremely complex and researchers readily acknowledge that there are countless antioxidants and other phytochemicals that have not yet been identified. What role these chemicals play by themselves or with other nutrients is just now being uncovered.

A USDA laboratory experiment found that ½ cup of cooked kale neutralized the same number of free radicals as a supplement containing 800 IU of vitamin E and 500 milligrams of vitamin C despite having only 10 IU of vitamin E and 60 milligrams of vitamin C. While the experiment was conducted in a test tube, the findings revealed that there are more pieces to the puzzle. Are there other antioxidants in kale that neutralize free radicals? Is there a synergistic effect of vitamin E, vitamin C with other nutrients found in the kale?  Is there a difference in the potency of vitamin E and vitamin C when consumed intact in foods?

A typical loaf of bread at a supermarket contains white flour instead of 100% whole-wheat flour. In 1942, Congress past the Enrichment Act requiring processors to replace some of the nutrients lost in the milling process. Twenty-three different nutrients are lost with the removal of the wheat germ and wheat bran. White flour today is typically enriched with only five nutrients: thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid, and iron. While the enrichment process is beneficial, there remains a huge disparity between what is lost and what is replaced. Imagine being robbed at gunpoint and told to remove all of your clothes. If the robber returned your shoes, would you feel enriched?

Both the Nurses Health Study and Seventh Day Adventist Study found that the regular consumption of nuts (and nut butters like almond butter) significantly reduced the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Nutritionally this relationship makes sense because nuts contain an array of heart-healthy nutrients, including folate, magnesium, manganese, copper, and zinc. Interestingly most of these nutrients are also found in dark green leafy vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, but most Americans shy away from these staple whole foods.

Can a daily vitamin make amends for the nutrients lost from our breads, cereals, and pastas? Can it replace the nutrients from other whole foods, like beans and greens, which we’re not eating?   There is a growing body of evidence supporting the relationship between nutrients in foods and reduced disease risk.  Don’t be lulled by the vitamin makers into complacency. Strive to eat a whole foods diet that includes dark green leafy vegetables on a daily basis.

Greg Hottinger, MPH, RD