We eat food, not nutrients. Too often researchers forget this. On their path to knowledge and scientific discovery, researchers are so fixated on finding definitive answers and controlling all conditions, that they forget we live in a world with an innumerable amount of changing variables. A researcher’s goal is to eliminate all confounding variables in their study, and test the effects of a specific thing. Yet, one cannot do that in the real world. If a researcher wants to test the effects of iron intake on circulating iron levels, for example, they will try their utmost to ensure that the only thing being changed in their study is iron. This approach forgets one very important thing: almost no individual will actually be able to simulate these conditions in a way that makes this scholarly work directly relatable. That is, why are we so focused on how nutrients effect our physiology out of the context of food, rather than looking for the effects that these same nutrients have when ingested in their natural form: in a meal? When we intake iron in the form of red meat there are thousands of other compounds and chemicals that will effect how the iron behaves in our body. So why not design studies that explore the effects of eating foods, rather than the effects of nutrients, on our physiology?
Although basic research about metabolic pathways and the regulation of micro and macro-nutrients is vital, it is very hard to generalize. Looking at how foods, rather than nutrients, affect our health is much easier to translate from the lab and into the world. Research showing the effects of one nutrient in an isolated situation is often far removed from how that same nutrient would behave when surrounded by other compounds. For example, just because we find that increasing calcium has a beneficial effect on bone (1), does not necessarily mean that increasing consumption of any calcium-containing food will have the same effect (2). The other compounds in the food might interfere with absorption or metabolism. Moreover, there may be other harmful compounds in the food that negates the effect of calcium.
A second reason that makes this shift extremely important is that results from these kinds of studies will be much easier for the general public to interpret. There is a reason that the scientifically-supported nutritional information is buried under all the fad diets and pseudoscientific nutrition. The former is complex, distant and un-relatable, and the latter is simple, familiar and easily implementable. A scientific study will promote the intake of phosphorus, vitamin D, and calcium for optimal bone health (3), which is not something most people can go home and start doing. This requires further research and is hard to decipher. On the other hand, a fad diet, such as the baby food diet for example, will make some wild statement that by eating only baby food you will not only be able to lose weight but also keep your bones strong and healthy (4). This fad diet is in your face, relatable, and the information is easy to implement right out of your kitchen cupboard. The rhetoric of the fad diet is simple and by no means alienating, which only works to furthers the gap between science and society, which is precisely what we should be trying to bridge.
One of the scientific community’s biggest goals is to benefit the world around us. Although the use of specific nutrients in studies is still very important for the elucidation of various pathways and processes, research into the effects foods have on the human bodies is of the utmost importance. We need to begin this transition from researching nutrients to researching food. By building up a large knowledge-base of what foods do to our bodies we can better tackle the various nutrition-related diseases that plague the human race. We can also start a shift towards a new form of translational nutrition research that can be used by the everyday person to design a healthful lifestyle for themselves, without having to become an expert on the nutrient composition of food. Research aims to explain the world around us, and that is precisely why we need to use it to learn about the most fundamental thing that has brought humans to where they are today: the food that we eat.
1. Bess Dawson-Hughes, M.D., Susan S. Harris, D.Sc., Elizabeth A. Krall, Ph.D., and Gerard E.
Dallal, Ph.D. N Engl J Med. 1997; 337:670-676
2. Barzel US and Massey LK. J Nutr. 1998; 128: 1051-53
3. Gaffney-Stomberg E, Insogna KL, Rodriguez NR, Kerstetter JE. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2009;
4. Zelman, Kathleen. "The Baby Food Diet: Review". WebMD.