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The sum is more complex than its parts

Western medicine is very good at identifying single factors contributing to disease, with undoubted health benefits for individuals and communities. It is easy to cite from the extensive list of individual factors associated either positively or negatively with disease — cholesterol, smoking, asbestos, micronutrients, antibiotics. But to what extent can this approach improve overall health, prevent disease, and help us manage complex conditions? Articles in this issue of the MJA illustrate emphatically that no single factor affecting our health should be seen in isolation.

Stanton (doi: 10.5694/mja13.10297) welcomes the revised National Health and Medical Research Council dietary guidelines that refocus on foods rather than isolated nutrients, and on patterns of eating as well as total intake. She argues that focusing on single nutrients leads to distorted food choices, and taking nutrients as supplements does not allow for the complex interaction between nutrients in whole food, which may lead to adverse consequences.

These issues are reflected in Brimblecombe and colleagues’ survey of diets in remote Northern…