October 9

Flashback Friday: Why Is Nutrition So Commercialized?


The prevalence of chronic diseases, like diabetes, has skyrocketed—as have the number of articles published about diabetes in medical journals. Why does our wealth of academic knowledge not translate more directly into making things better? Maybe it’s our overattachment to the reductionistic mindset that proved so successful with acute deficiency diseases, but may actually represent an obstacle to successfully battle chronic disease.

As I’ve touched on before, health these days seems to be reduced to a highly commercialized commodity, in which we’re marketed all sorts of high-cost, high-tech tests, and treatments of dubious value, with substantial risks attached—which is worrisome, because most of the things that make us healthy, and keep us healthy, are cheap, and largely available without professional help or commercial prodding. This isn’t to say modern medicine can’t work miracles; but, what about the big picture—the 80% of death and disability caused by preventable, diet-related diseases?

But, of course, the field of nutrition is commercialized, too. It’s all about profits and products, and extracting nutrients from whole foods so they can be repackaged and marketed.  Yes, food is best eaten whole. For example, just eat the broccoli, the blueberries—not some broccoberry supplement.

But the reason there aren’t more studies on whole foods is fairly obvious—you can’t patent them. Why should a company spend a lot of money, time, and effort to convince you to buy broccoli, when any other company can sell it to you? That’s why the field of nutrition can be more about marketing profitable products than educating people about the fundamentals of health and wellness.

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For example, the benefits of whole grains over refined grains is commonly attributed to the fiber. This allows the food industry to whip out fiber-fortified Froot Loops, and make you feel all better.

But check out this ingenious study. Burkitt and colleagues thought the extraordinarily low rates of killer chronic diseases in sub-Saharan Africa was due to all the whole, plant foods they were eating. This turned into the fiber hypothesis—the reductionistic thought that fiber must be the magic bullet active ingredient.

Well, hey; let’s put it to the test. Refined grains have some fiber left in them. So, what if you compared two groups of older women, both getting around six grams of grain fiber a day—but one group mostly from whole grains, and the other mostly from refined grains? Who do you think lived longer?

If it was just the fiber, there shouldn’t be much difference, because they ate about the same amount. But the whole grain group lived longer; a significantly lower mortality rate. So, this implies that it may be all the other wonderful things in whole plant foods, linked to fiber, that may confer important health benefits, above and beyond the fiber itself. That’s why fiber supplements wouldn’t be expected to offer the same benefit.

Food, not nutrients, is the fundamental unit in nutrition.

As Dr. David Katz has pointed out,”Our culture doesn’t want to hear that the active ingredient in broccoli is broccoli…”

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.

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