Nutritionism is Not Dead

February 2, 2016 in fiber, Foodland, Health Claims, Nutritionism by Joyce Bunderson

It’s true; nutritionism is not only not dead, but it appears to be a vital and integral part of the processed food business. Last week, an interesting and well-written article, published on January 26, 2016 in MedPage Today quickly caught my attention. The title is Fiber-Rich Diet May Boost Lung Function and the subtitle is: Authors note an association with intake of fruits and veggies. If the reader gets inside the article, they quickly learn that there was a stronger association of fruit and vegetable consumption than with the consumption of whole grains. What really piqued my attention was how the word ‘fiber’ and “fruit and vegetable consumption” were used interchangeably. Yes, it’s true that fruits and vegetables are full of fiber, but of course, they are not solely fiber.

The study was designed to separate out the function of dietary fiber and antioxidants. But here’s the problem: there are thousands of phytonutrients (plant nutrients) in fruits and vegetables. So in short, my question is how do we declare the fiber in the fruits and vegetables to be free of all the other nutrients in fruits and vegetables? To be free from all the other phytonutrients that could be involved in improving lung function? The fact is that we really don’t know precisely what it is about the fruits and vegetables, that for sure is improving lung function in those who eat these whole foods. The food processors and even some nutritionists use a study like this to recommend fiber supplements. I found advertisements for fiber supplements on two sites next to the research reports. (More on that below.) Does it matter that the studies used actual fruit and vegetable consumption? Many food processers and supplement providers rely on you assuming that their fiber supplements are equal in value to real fruits and vegetables, without providing any evidence behind that suggestion. They are relying on the wishful thinking of consumers who find it convenient to believe that fiber supplements are as good for you as whole foods.

Before we leave the first study, let me just mention that among their other data, the researchers also found a lower body mass index (BMI) in those with higher intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Just a thought, maybe eating these fiber-filled foods fills a person up on a lower total calorie intake. In addition, they mentioned that other previous studies have found stronger associations with intakes of whole fruit when compared to individual fruit-related nutrients. These of course, are previous studies that tried to just pick a few nutrients out of fruit and find an association with those nutrients and some health benefits. (Nutritionism is the name for this old and disproven approach.)

The MedPage Today article ends with a quote; “This is a non-invasive, very inexpensive strategy that may be good for your lungs.” It makes sense to eat more fruits and vegetables to support lung health, but unfortunately, the advertisers quickly translate fiber in fruits and vegetables to supplemental fiber – as evidenced by their advertisements.

Another new study just published online on February 1, 2016, coming out of Harvard has to do with higher fiber diets and a reduced risk of breast cancer. The essence of this study is that the risk of breast cancer was between 12 and 19 percent lower in those who ate more fiber in early adulthood. And those who ate more fiber in adolescence saw a 16 to 24 percent lower risk. For each additional 10 grams of fiber eaten daily during early adulthood, breast cancer risk declined by 13 percent. That’s only about the equivalent of one apple and two slices of whole wheat bread. In this study, like the lung study above, they found the strongest association with the fiber that came from fruits and vegetables. The researchers are not sure why a fiber-rich diet appears to lower the risk of breast cancer, but they hypothesize that high-fiber foods may help to reduce high estrogen levels in the blood, which are a major risk factor for the disease. But please note: they don’t really know why or how the whole-food high-fiber diets works. It appears to work, so why not serve lots of fruits and vegetables to your family and yourself? The benefit may be derived from some combination of the fiber in the fruits and vegetables and the phytonutrients in them. We just don’t know for sure.

If you want to make your diet one that will reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, colorectal cancer, breast cancer and now lung function, then start finding ways to eat more fruits and vegetables. Don’t forget that beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains are also very good sources for fiber and phytonutrients.

Naturally, food processors will take the cheapest source of fiber they can find to put in their supplements. Lower costs increase profit margins. What I’d like to alert you to is the use of inulin, cellulose and other sources of processed fiber supplements. Remember, the science about all this benefit is not complete – they don’t know the mechanism of action or the complete story. Extracted inulin may not only fail to show the benefits of fiber in whole foods, it may have negative side effects. Why not just consume the food items that good research shows are associated with the reduced risks? When I was reading the two new studies this week, I found advertisements for Fiber Good gummies. There is a picture of fruits on the label of the bottle (oranges, cherries, grapes, strawberry) but the fiber is provided by inulin. The directions say take two, twice a day. (Notice the subtle suggestion that yummy, chewy gummies are like a medical prescription). At the price of $14.99 for 90 gummies, that would be $20 per month, but hey, cheap medicine! But it is both fake food and fake medicine. I say you can purchase lots of veggies and fruit with those twenty bucks; and the fruits and veggies are going to give you a lot more than inulin. I’ve written about inulin numerous times and posted the information to Doctor Grandmas blog. If you want to know all the different names for inulin, read On Tummy Aches and Processors’ Favorite Fiber Additive.

Yes, it’s true nutritionism is alive and well. One of the new recommendations in the new US Dietary Guidelines for Americans is to move away from recommendations for individual nutrients and toward whole foods. This is a great place to start to my thinking. Eat nutritious whole foods – fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Skip the fiber supplements.