It’s lucky that eating delicious food is so enjoyable because food does more than keep us alive. It provides us with nutrients that help us to thrive. But sadly, many people don’t get the nutrition they need. In North America, for instance, most people consume too much ultra-processed food, which is high in calories and low in nutrients. This leaves them deficient in key vitamins and minerals and increases their risk of developing chronic disease.
This raises the question: is taking nutritional supplements worthwhile? The answer is, it can be. For instance, most North Americans are magnesium deficient. Studies show that taking magnesium supplements can lower blood pressure or help to keep blood sugar under control. Supplements may also support healthy aging. Because our immune systems head downhill as we age, researchers provided a group of older people with nutrients known to boost immunity. When sickness struck, those taking the daily supplement had less severe and more transient symptoms than the group that didn’t get the supplement.
Even so, research shows that consuming nutrients as part of a healthy diet is preferable to taking them as supplements. Food contains many different nutrients that work together synergistically to promote health and prevent disease in all systems of your body.
Take whole grains, for instance. Recently, two large “meta-analyses” (review studies that compile the results of other studies) confirmed their wide-ranging benefits by, for instance, protecting against inflammation, a condition that underlies most chronic illnesses. Eating whole grains was also shown to lessen the likelihood that you will develop specific diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and various types of cancer.
The health benefits of whole grains can be attributed to their impressive array of nutrients. Most provide at least small amounts of B vitamins, vitamin E and the minerals manganese, magnesium, potassium, iron, copper and selenium. They also contain fiber and beneficial fatty acids. Recently, scientists have become particularly interested in another component of these nutritious plant foods — their phytonutrients.
Phytonutrients are among the chemicals produced by plants. They include carotenoids, polyphenols, flavonoids and lignans, among others. These compounds are “bioactive”, which means they function like chemical messengers roaming throughout your body and activating various pathways as they travel. Consider the following.
Whole Grains Deliver Antioxidant Punch
Many of the nutrients in whole grains function as antioxidants. That means they stimulate your body’s cells to neutralize free radicals, which can damage your DNA. Free radicals have been linked with a wide range of diseases, from cancer and stroke to heart disease and premature aging. Each antioxidant works differently to protect your cells from free-radical damage. Research shows that eating plenty of antioxidant-rich plant foods lowers the risk of several diseases, whereas taking antioxidant supplements does not have a similar effect.
Whole Grains Boost Your Microbiome
Whole grains support a healthy gut, rich in bacterial diversity. Among its benefits, a thriving gut keeps your metabolism and your immune system humming. It also helps to stabilize your emotions.
Initially, scientists thought the fiber in whole grains was responsible for their health- promoting capacities and to some extent that’s true. But whole grains provide other substances, like polyphenols. When “good-guy” bacteria digest food components like fiber and polyphenols, they produce chemical substances known as metabolites. These include short-chain fatty acids, which actively work to promote health and fight disease.
Whole Grains Improve Gene Expression
Epigenetics is a relatively new science that tells us while your genes may be fixed, they change their behavior in response to environmental influences. Diet is a key player in gene expression and its effects on epigenetic pathways, which run throughout the body, have a major impact on health.
When researchers studied diets rich in whole grains (as well as in fruits and vegetables) alongside those high in processed foods, they found that people who conformed to healthy eating patterns had positive epigenetic patterns across many body systems. For instance, people who consumed 4 servings of whole grains a day were shown to have gene expression patterns linked with a reduced risk of chronic disease. Those whose diets were nutritionally deficient had negative gene expression patterns in pathways associated with inflammation, cancer and immunity.
While we don’t fully understand how all this works, we do know that certain compounds in foods can punch above their weight in delivering health benefits. Nature doesn’t provide nutrients in isolated form as they appear in supplements. Whole foods provide many different nutrients and they work together in ways that nutrients in supplements simply can’t do.
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McRae, Marc. Health Benefits of Dietary Whole Grains: An Umbrella Review of Meta-analyses. Journal of Chiropractic Medicine 2017.
Xu Y. et al. Whole grain diet reduces system inflammation. A meta-analysis of 9 randomized trials. Medicine (Baltimore) 2018.
Liu, R. H. hole Grain Phytochemicals and Health. Journal of Cereal Science 2007
Martinez, I. et al. Gut microbiome composition is linked to whole grain-induced immunological improvements. ISME journal 2013.
Bouchard-Mercier, A. et al. Associations between dietary patterns and gene expression profiles of healthy men and women: a cross-sectional study. Nutrition Journal 2013.
Pham-Huy, et al. Free Radicals, Antioxidants in Disease and Health. International Journal of Biomedical Science 2008.
Judith Finlayson is the author of You Are What Your Grandparents Ate: What You Need to Know About Nutrition, Experience, Epigenetics, and the Origins of Chronic Disease. Visit her at www.judithfinlayson.com.