Whole Foods: Reductionism vs. Wholeism
I’m currently about 40% through Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition. Already my eating habits are being affected by the book’s argument for a whole foods plant-based (WFPB) diet. I’ll address the grand benefits of such a diet in a later post, but first I’d like to write about my biggest shift in thinking regarding nutrition: looking at it from the perspective of a wholeist rather than a reductionist.
When I read Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food earlier this year, that was the first time I heard nutrition described from the “wholeism” viewpoint. Prior to that book, I’d always thought of nutrition just as I’d been taught in school and see in society: Each food item in the grocery store is composed of different parts (Carbohydrates, sugars, sodium, vitamins, etc.), which are all listed on the side of the package. If you’re not getting enough vitamin C, you can take a vitamin C supplement. If the product you’re buying is fortified with extra iron, great! This is the reductionist view of nutrition, and it’s actually not so great.
Well, how else could you possibly look at nutrition? Wholeism applied to nutrition means that an orange, for example, is not equal to the sum of its parts. Eating an orange is far more beneficial to your body than taking pills of all the known nutrients in an orange. There’s something about the naturally made, photosynthesized energy of a whole plant, for example, that cannot be replicated/replaced by a lab-made nutrient. But the media, government-dictated pyramids and food labels have us thinking otherwise. I was always taught that it’s the nutrients inside of a food that make it healthy, not the whole food itself — which is so backwards. So this “whole” nutrients idea was completely new to me, but makes a lot of sense once you look into it more.
To further challenge what I thought I knew about nutrition, Dr. Campbell states that “The food we put in our mouths doesn’t control our nutrition – not entirely. What our bodies do with that food does.”
Huh? Luckily he illustrates the statement with an example. Say you consume 100 mg of vitamin C at one meal, and later 400 mg at a second meal. So your body absorbs four times as much vitamin C during the second meal, right? Wrong!
Thanks to the fascinating wonder that is our bodies, this is not the case. Our bodies will only absorb and use however much of a specific nutrient that it needs at that particular moment in time. Incredible!
Dr. Campbell rightfully reminds the reader that “Our bodies have evolved to eat whole foods, and can therefore deal with the combinations and interactions of nutrients contained in those foods. Give a body 10,000 mg of vitamin C, however, and all bets are off.”
And all this time I had thought products with extra vitamins, iron, potassium, etc. were better for me! Turns out whole foods (mostly plants) is the answer so many of us need.