Why whole-food nutrition matters: A conversation, Part 1
Nutrition is increasingly recognized as an indispensable component of a comprehensive approach to modern healthcare. In 2018, a report from the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) declared that "improvements in diet and nutrition offer us one of our greatest opportunities to have a profound, generational impact on human health and on reducing health disparities."
The understanding of nutrition, however, varies widely in our culture overall, and even within the medical profession. To clarify the definition, practice and future promise of whole-food nutrition, we sat down with an expert, Dr. Peter Nickless, dean of the School of Health Sciences and Education at Northeast College of Health Sciences. In this first part of the discussion, we cover what is (and isn't) whole-food nutrition.
What is whole-food nutrition?
The first question, of course, is one of definitions. As Dr. Nickless put it, "Whole-food nutrition is really a philosophy more than anything -- the philosophy that we need to solidify the diet as a means of achieving optimal health before we go into supplementation or other means. Nutrition often gets brought into an almost reductionist view of being a combination of nutrients. And although on one level that might be correct, we don't eat nutrients -- we eat food. So, a whole-food nutritionist is going to approach a client by assessing their diet, fixing or solidifying it with food primarily, and then considering targeted supplementation aimed at achieving the desired result."
Whole-food nutrition versus quick-fix solutions
Dr. Nickless was eager to distinguish between a disciplined, whole-food approach and the tendency to seek out easy answers via faddish programs. "In general, fad diets are associated with what I would consider a quick fix. And by that, I mean they have a start date and, theoretically, an end date by which you're going to lose 30 pounds or achieve some other health outcome. Whole-food nutrition is not so much a diet as an effort to solidifying how you eat, with the goal of sustainability into the future."
"Whole-food nutrition is not so much a diet as an effort to solidifying how you eat, with the goal of sustainability into the future."
Which is not to say that there aren't both near- and long-term applications of nutrition. "A nutritionist can address two categories of need," said Dr. Nickless. "We've got the burning platform, if you will, where we need to put out fire before we can rebuild the house. Those cases are usually fixed time periods in which our goal is to gain control over symptoms or other specific issues. But then we need to rebuild stronger, and that's where we get into a long-term, sustainable view. We're not trying to have you do something for six months and then go back to eating like you were. What we're trying to recommend is for you to do something that you're going to be following for years to come."
Making a healthier approach to nutrition sustainable
Helping clients pursue a healthy, whole-food approach long-term is not easy in today's world. As Dr. Nickless put it, "Clients tend to view these as a great solution, and they go into it whole hog. But in the end, life gets in the way. For example, if you're restricting carbohydrates, it suddenly becomes very difficult to live in modern society. So, one of the things we try to do is keep people from having these ridiculously ultra-restrictive rules.
"Picking the appropriate foods for an individual is critical, and very much something that should be done in conjunction with an appropriate healthcare professional. You need someone who understands the biochemistry, the physiology, what they're trying to achieve, as well as the impact of those nutrients on not just the healthcare outcomes, but also on any other ancillary conditions or comorbidities that may be presented."
"Picking the appropriate foods for an individual is critical, and very much something that should be done in conjunction with an appropriate healthcare professional."
Whole-food nutrition is about the whole person
As the discussion continued, it became clear that effective use of whole-food nutrition is not a one-size-fits-all pursuit. "There's a lot of individuality that comes into this," added Dr. Nickless. "We need to look at analyzing eating patterns, adolescent eating patterns as they relate to both genomic and genetic differences, as they relate to chemical differences. This may require laboratory blood work, urinalysis or other tests, especially when you start getting into targeted conditions. That's where healthcare practitioners really become important."
Next: What will be the role of whole-food nutrition in the future of healthcare?
Dr. Nickless had much more to say on the subject, so don't miss Part 2, when we delve into the role of whole-food nutrition in modern healthcare, now and in the future.
FDA nutrition innovation strategy (2018)