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Food Synergy: More Than the Sum of Single Nutrients

Whole foods eaten together provide health benefits beyond individual nutrients

Whole foods eaten together provide health benefits beyond individual nutrients.

By: Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN

  • Thursday, November 7, 2019
  • 4 Minute Read   

Milk and dairy foods are rich in many key nutrients and are frequently highlighted for their calcium content. However, dairy foods contribute much more to health than the sum of their individual nutrients. Foods and the nutrients they contain do not act in isolation, but instead interact with one another and work together. When certain foods are combined, their nutritional benefits are enhanced. This is known as food synergy. For example, when vitamin C-rich citrus fruits are eaten with foods containing iron (beef, fish, beans or dark leafy greens) the absorption of iron is enhanced. And when yogurt is eaten with fruit or whole grains, the benefits of the probiotics are enhanced in the gut. Food synergy demonstrates that whole foods and combinations of foods eaten together provide greater health benefits than their individual components.

Nutrition experts agree that focusing on overall diet quality is more effective than emphasizing specific amounts of single nutrients. Although individual nutrients are important, it is too simplistic to identify single nutrients as the cause of any chronic disease. For many years, dietary recommendations focused on limiting foods high in fat, in particular saturated fat, on the basis that fat intake leads to obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases. Medical and nutrition experts are beginning to understand that not all dietary fats are equal in terms of their effect on cardiovascular health. Emerging research suggests that different food sources of saturated fat may impact disease risk differently, depending on the nutrients and compounds they contain.

For example, recent research indicates that dairy foods may affect health differently than other foods containing saturated fat. Studies, systematic reviews and meta-analyses have shown that milk, cheese and yogurt consumption is not associated with increased risk for cardiovascular disease. As a matter of fact, recently published studies indicate consumption of dairy foods, regardless of fat content, may be linked to neutral or reduced risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Therefore, measuring saturated fat consumption by itself is likely insufficient for determining disease risk and health outcomes.

Given what is understood about the importance of food synergy, it is time to shift the focus away from the benefits of individual nutrients and instead emphasize the importance of whole foods and healthy eating patterns that include more plant-based foods and dairy to optimize health and reduce chronic diseases. Educators and health professionals have the opportunity to educate children and adults about the benefits of eating whole foods, including dairy, to support overall health and prevent obesity and other chronic health conditions.

In summary:

  • Foods and the nutrients they contain interact and work together. When certain foods are eaten together, their nutritional benefits are enhanced.
  • Emphasizing overall diet quality is more effective than focusing on specific amounts of single nutrients.
  • Recent research indicates dairy consumption, regardless of fat content, may be linked to neutral or reduced risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
  • Educators and health professionals are in a unique position to educate children and adults about the benefits of eating whole foods, including dairy, to support overall health.
References
Alexander DD, Bylsma LC, Vargas AJ et al. Dairy consumption and CVD: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Nutr. 2016;115:737-750.. Published February 26, 2016.
Chiu S, Bergeron N, Williams PT, Bray GA, Sutherland B, Krauss RM. Comparison of the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet and a higher-fat DASH diet on blood pressure and lipids and lipoproteins: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2016;103(2):341-347. doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.115.123281
de Oliveira Otto MC, Nettleton JA, Lemaitre RN et al. Biomarkers of dairy fatty acids and risk of cardiovascular disease in the multi-ethnic study of atherosclerosis. J Am Heart Assoc. 2013;2:e000092. doi.org/10.1161/JAHA.113.000092
Dehghan M, Mente A, Rangarajan S et al. Association of dairy intake with cardiovascular disease and mortality in 21 countries from five continents (PURE): a prospective cohort study. Lancet. 2018. doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31812-9
Jacobs DR, Tapsell LC. Food synergy: the key to a healthy diet. Proc Nutr Soc. 2013;72(2):200-206. doi.org/10.1017/S0029665112003011
Tapsell LC, Neale EP, Satija A, Hu FB. Foods, nutrients, and dietary patterns: interconnections and implications for dietary guidelines. Adv Nutr. 2016;7:445-454. doi.org/10.3945/an.115.011718
Thorning TK, Bertram HC, Bonjour JP et al. Whole dairy matrix or single nutrients in assessment of health effects: current evidence and knowledge gaps. Am J Clin Nutr. 2017;105(5):1033-1045. doi:10.3945/ajcn.116.151548
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Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN

Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN

Kristal is the project manager of nutrition science and a registered dietitian nutritionist.

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