Whole foods are much more than just delivery systems for the nutrients that are found in supplements. "In studies of the benefits of supplements," says Young, "the people taking vitamin E or beta-carotene were no healthier than those who didn't take vitamins." The benefits of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants in isolation are also exaggerated, says Scrinis. "Simply adding these nutrients to foods . . . takes the nutrient out of the matrix in which it is usually found in whole foods."
The fact is, science has a long way to go when it comes to understanding the healthful compounds contained in foods. "We're not sure why fresh foods offer protection against disease, because every component hasn't been isolated," says Young. "We know that broccoli has vitamin C and beta-carotene, but it also contains fiber and phytochemicals such as sulforaphane."
What's more, the synergies at work are not completely understood. The health benefit may come not from the nutrient or even the food, but from "the nutrient composition in naturally occurring foods," according to an American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study by epidemiologist David R. Jacobs, Ph.D., and colleagues. "A person or animal eating a diet consisting solely of purified nutrients . . . without the benefit of coordination inherent in food may not thrive and probably would not have optimal health." This explains why some nutrients, such as beta-carotene, are shown to be ineffective when studied in isolation. What's more, antioxidants might not be the cure-all that the media makes them out to be. Here are 5 Myths About Antioxidants that you should never believe.
"We have to ask what else this person is eating," Young says. "Look at the Mediterranean diet. It is very unprocessed, but then we take one component like olive oil and elevate it. Olive oil is a heart-healthy fat, as is the fat found in nuts. But if we dump a bottle of olive oil onto a salad that's piled high with cheese and nuts, the total effect of that meal changes."
"As scientists continue to discuss nutrition from a nutrient perspective," Jacobs and colleagues write, "the public may be better served by focusing on whole foods [and not] on nutrient interpretations of them." In other words, a diet of doctored foods isn't the answer.
Claim#4: Saturated Fat Is Evil
In the 1960s and 1970s, health officials began to distinguish between "good" and "bad" fats. Then nutritionism made dietary assets into enemies. "Naturally occurring saturated fats were vilified," says Scrinis, "while trans fats in margarine were promoted by default. No distinction was made between naturally occurring nutrients and those that had been processed and chemically transformed."
The problem is, naturally occurring saturated fats really don't deserve their sordid reputation. You may not hear it from your cardiologist anytime soon, but the towering dogma impugning LDL, the so-called bad cholesterol, is on shaky ground these days.
As a result, the case against saturated fats has largely crumbled. Yes, consumption of saturated fat does raise LDL—but mainly the benign forms. The supposed role of these fats in heart disease has been debunked.