Whole foods eaten together provide health benefits beyond individual nutrients
By: Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN
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.
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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