You’ve probably read the stories claiming that eating blueberries lowers your risk of dementia, or that red wine is good for your heart, or that coffee protects against type 2 diabetes – or, indeed, many other big claims. of health for a particular “superfood”. ”. But what is the truth in these statements?
Although we, a group of nutritional scientists, have been involved in this type of research, we are not responsible for the headlines. Beneath these gripping stories, however, lies important, serious research that will help keep us all happier and healthier.
We study parts of foods called bioactives that have an effect on health (good or bad). Unlike vitamins and minerals, bioactives, such as certain fatty acids, fiber or flavanols (a group of compounds found, for example, in tea or apples), are not essential for survival , but still affect our health.
The big challenge in bioactive research is to separate the effect of a food from an individual compound (foods are incredibly complex and contain many compounds). A cup of coffee contains certain phenolic acids that have a positive effect on heart health, but other compounds that can raise cholesterol. This makes our research difficult, but also exciting.
We need to find ways to distinguish between the health effects of different parts of foods to understand what is happening and ultimately build more confidence in the recommendations we provide.
One way to learn more about the effect of certain foods on health is to compare people with different diets and follow them over a long period of time. This approach has helped us show that the Mediterranean diet – and the Nordic diet – keeps us healthy longer. But this approach is imperfect when we want to know more about individual foods or their components.
Foods are never eaten in isolation and are incredibly difficult to disassemble in such studies. To make the results of this research easier to understand, these discoveries are often converted into food equivalents – the famous punnet of raspberries, the cups of tea or the bottles of wine that you should consume for your health. In reality, it is much more difficult.
Food and health research is difficult because there are so many things to consider. There are the essential nutrients we need to survive. There are dietary habits which can affect overall health and which are the basis of recommendations, such as the UK government’s Eatwell guide. And then there are bioactive compounds found primarily in plant foods that may have a beneficial effect on health.
Bioactive research often results in headlines about amazing foods. In reality, it is only a tiny part of the food, often found elsewhere as well. A notable example is blueberries. They contain bioactives, but they are also expensive. Blackberries and plums provide the same bioactives, but are much cheaper.
Over the past few decades, we’ve learned a lot about the chemicals found naturally in food – what they are and how they affect the body. Some of them confer benefits to our heart, brain, and gut that will help us sprint faster, cycle longer, concentrate harder, and relax more easily.
However, many of them cause problems when consumed in excessive amounts. For example, flavanols in green tea can damage the liver when consumed in very large amounts. We are just beginning to find out if there is an ideal amount of these compounds that provide maximum benefits. Until then, it’s safe to say that a varied diet is the best approach.
The great thing about our understanding of nutrition is that it is continually evolving and improving and we understand much better what foods to look for as research progresses.
Everyone should build some sort of dietary portfolio that includes the essential nutrients, fiber and bioactives needed to maintain good health and age well. Our bodies are incredibly complex and need lots of different vitamins, minerals, macro and micronutrients to keep us going optimally. It now seems likely that we need to add bioactives to this list. But no matter where they come from, it’s the variety that counts.
You should be wary of dietary advice that suggests excluding the range of wonderful foods on offer and focusing on a few ‘superfoods’ that seem to have magical properties. Nutrition is much more complex than that – and eating healthy is much easier.