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Diet and nutrition: the folly of the reductionist approach

Diet-related health problems require us to change our food choices rather than emphasise individual nutrients

After almost 4 years of review, in February 2013 the National Health and Medical Research Council released the latest revision of its dietary guidelines for Australians.1 Recognising that people consume foods rather than single nutrients, the new guidelines feature food-based advice, emphasising dietary patterns that are associated with health and wellbeing and are relevant to reducing the risks of obesity and chronic disease.

While researchers use a reductionist approach in analysing the adequacy of selected nutrients or nutrient density, people do not shop for protein, “omega 3s”, “carbs”, calcium or some other nutrient, but for whole foods; and our advice needs to be about which to choose more of (fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and fish) and which to limit (sweetened drinks and processed foods high in saturated fat, added sugars or salt).

Emphasising one or more particular nutrients can lead to poor food choices. For example, on a nutrient basis, a processed breakfast cereal may contain added vitamins, but the cereal may be high in added sugars…