Whole foods, and supplements derived from them, provide dozens of
compounds that work together to sustain health.
by Karen Tenelli
Low-fat, low-carb, low-glycemic: Get a roomful of dietary experts together and you’re going to get a variety of opinions on the best way to eat. One thing they won’t argue about, though, is the need to consume whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables, that have undergone minimal processing on the way from soil to table.
“Whole grains, vegetables and fruits contain nutrients that are beneficial to overall health. Eating a whole-food diet free of preservatives and additives may reduce your risk of chronic disease and ensure a good quality of life,” says Samer Koutoubi, MD, PhD, a professor at Bastyr University in Washington state. This concern with the benefits of wholeness has filtered into the world of dietary supplements, where a number of manufacturers have created products based on whole-food concentrates.
The Whole Story
What accounts for the link between whole foods and improved health? For one thing, such foods aren’t burdened with the excessive salt, fat and sugar used to make processed foods more palatable. Their biggest advantage, though, lies in an excellent nutrition-to-calories ratio. Produce and unrefined grains supply a wide spectrum of vitamins and minerals in addition to protein building blocks called amino acids, complex carbohydrates for sustained energy and healthy fats—think avocados versus cheeseburgers. Whole foods also provide insoluble and soluble fiber to promote
digestive health and curb appetite, and to keep cholesterol at healthy levels and blood sugar from spiking after meals.
In addition, whole foods contain live enzymes. Although not nutrients themselves, these substances assist in the thousands of metabolic reactions that occur within the body every second. Some, known as digestive enzymes, help break down nutrients such as carbohydrates, fats and proteins into more basic molecules that can be absorbed and used. Others, known as systemic enzymes, help maintain, repair and fuel the body’s trillions of cells.
Whole foods also supply a wealth of phytonutrients. “Phytonutrients act as anti-inflammatories and antioxidants, and help boost the immune system. They protect cells from damage, and help lower blood pressure and prevent cardiovascular disease,” says Koutoubi.
The presence of bright colors—the red in tomatoes, the orange in carrots—“is an indicator of phytonutrients. I recommend eating a variety of colored fruits and vegetables daily,” says Victoria Drake, manager of the Micronutrient Information Center at the Linus Pauling Institute, Oregon State University. Phytonutrients—and these are only a few examples—can be classified according to where they fall on the color spectrum:
• White through Yellow: allyl sulfides (garlic, onion); quercetin (most produce); limonene (lemons, noni); lutein (mango, winter squash)
• Green: catechins (green tea); chlorophyll (barley and wheat grasses, leafy greens, spirulina); sulforaphane (broccoli)
• Red through Blue-Purple: lycopene (tomato, watermelon); ellagic acid (pomegranate, raspberry,
strawberry); reveratrol (grape); anthocyanins (açai, berries, mangosteen, goji)
Koutoubi and Drake agree that phytonutrients represent a growing area of research. The ability of many phytonutrients to influence cell behavior appears to retard cancer development. Diabetes is caused by the body’s inability to maintain proper levels of glucose, or blood sugar; phytonutrients are believed to fight diabetes by several means (International Journal of Molecular Sciences 3/10).
One class of phytonutrients, the polyphenols, appears to blunt the effects of age by protecting against free-radical oxidation; phytonutrients may also reduce the risk of age-related cognitive decline (Current Aging Science 2/10, The Journal of Neuroscience 10/14/09). Some studies have focused on individual compounds. In one example, increased intake of proanthocyanidins, the compounds found in red-blue berries, has been linked to reduced stomach cancer risk, while flavonol intake has been associated with reduced stroke risk (Cancer Causes & Control 10/10, Journal of Nutrition 3/10). Hesperetin, found in citrus fruits, has been found to help reduce inflammatory markers in synovial cells taken from joint tissue, the kind that can break down as arthritis develops (Cellular Immunology 5/10 online).
Despite the mounting pile of studies, many scientists believe that we have only scratched the surface in terms of understanding how individual phytonutrients function and how these substances—to say nothing of vitamins, minerals, fiber, enzymes and other whole-food components—interact with each other. “There’s thousands, perhaps as many as 10,000, phytonutrients and probably ones that have yet to be isolated,” says Drake. “There’s a lot we don’t know about their mechanism of action.”
That’s what makes synergy the key to whole-food nutrition. It’s the way that all of the components found in an apple—carbohydrates, fiber, quercetin and other phytonutrients—work together to provide health benefits that are more than a sum of the parts.
The first person to take notice of nutritional synergy was Albert Szent-Györgyi, MD, a Nobel Prize-winning Hungarian physiologist credited with discovering vitamin C. In 1934 Szent-Györgyi gave fruit juice extract to a patient with scurvy, caused by vitamin C deficiency; the patient promptly recovered. When purified vitamin C became available Szent-Györgyi gave it to another scurvy patient, expecting better results. To his surprise, the pure C didn’t work as quickly or as well as the juice extract. The following year Szent-Györgyi identified the healthful “impurities” in citrus juice, calling them “vitamin P.”
Today vitamin P is known as the bioflavonoids, cofactors that help vitamin C do its job. The link between vitamin C and bioflavonoids is only one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of similar factor-cofactor collaborations—and helps explain why whole-food nutrition is so effective.
Innovative, science-based supplement manufacturers started adopting the principle of nutritional synergy back in the 1980s by adding whole foods such as brown rice and the superfood spirulina to their products so they could capture hundreds of nutrient cofactors, such as phytonutrients, in an effort to bolster effectiveness and absorbability. Today, however, some “natural” products are created by feeding vitamins and minerals to yeast to generate synergistic cofactors. However, yeast is devoid of many healthful nutrients that only true whole foods can provide. The best products are based on concentrates of whole foods—an important consideration given how many people are allergic or sensitive to yeast. (Organic supplements provide even more protection from exposure to potentially problematic synthetic compounds.) These products also include concentrates of such cutting-edge ingredients as açai, goji, noni, mangosteen and pomegranate.
Whole-food concentrates provide not only vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients but also amino acids, enzymes, fiber and other components found in whole foods. Such products are undergoing research; in one case, a whole-food supplement was able to reduce blood pressure (JANA 2010 Vol. 13 No. 1).
The best way to maintain health is to eat a diet based on whole foods whenever possible. Unfortunately, many people simply do not consume the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables. According to the National Fruit & Vegetable Alliance (www.nfva.org), Americans consume little more than a cup of vegetables a day—a number that has barely budged for the past five years and which is far below the recommended three to five daily servings. What’s especially worrisome is that this consumption gap correlates with increased costs for illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and stroke over the past 10 years (National Action Plan to Promote Health Through Increased Fruit and Vegetable Consumption 2010 Report Card, NFVA).
Although no substitute for a proper diet, whole-food supplements can help increase intake of the crucial dietary components contained in such foods—components many Americans aren’t getting enough of. Supplementation can also help cover the nutritional gaps that may occur despite the best of dietary intentions; even careful eaters can go astray when life becomes overly hectic, as it too often does.
A whole-food diet containing plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables remains the dietary gold standard when it comes to reducing disease risk and fighting the effects of aging. Whole-food supplements help makes the nutrition power found in these foods readily available.