Should We Consider a Whole-Foods Approach to Dietary Recommendations?

  • Article
  • August 29, 2019

Nutrition advice can be frustrating for the public. Is it OK to eat whole-milk sources of dairy foods, like whole milk yogurt or regular cheese? Should we replace the energy from dairy fat with alternative sources of fat, such as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) or monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA)? Bottom line—nutrition is not that simple. We eat foods, not nutrients.

A new study illustrates this complexity. It shows that a whole-foods approach is likely more telling and appropriate than a single-nutrient approach to dietary guidance and helping the public embrace and follow healthy eating patterns.

Let’s look at the study in more detail. This modeling study examined what would happen if dairy fat were removed from the diet or replaced with the major food sources of non-dairy PUFA and MUFA. The results were clear—removing dairy fat from the diet was associated with significant reductions in daily consumption of calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, riboflavin and vitamin B12 in both models. The Nutrient Rich Foods (NRF) index, a principal measure of diet quality, was also lower when dairy fat was replaced with other foods. These results illustrate the importance of a food-focused approach to healthy eating patterns and dietary guidance.

Nutrition advice that recommends “swapping” saturated fat is too simplistic—especially when you remember that research continues to show that dairy foods are not associated with increased risk for cardiovascular disease or type 2 diabetes.

This work is a prime example of the sum being greater than its parts: The whole food is greater than its individual nutrients. Dietary guidance certainly needs to provide recommended amounts of the essential nutrients within calorie limits, but it also has to account for the complexity of individual foods and the value that whole foods bring to healthy eating patterns and well-being.