Why the World's Healthiest Foods are the Key to Optimal Health

Foods versus Supplements

In the past 50 years, people have increasingly relied on the use of supplements as the magic bullet to optimal health. However, recent studies suggest that whole, nutrient-rich foods, like the World’s Healthiest Foods, consistently provide numerous health benefits which isolated nutrients do not provide.

Whole, nutrient- rich foods contain a wide array of nutrients including not only well known vitamins and minerals, but dozens of other biologically active compounds—all inter-related in a complex system supportive of the life of the plant or animal from which the food was derived. The more research is done, the more complex this life-giving nutrient web is revealed to be.

A whole nutritionally rich foods diet contains a great diversity of newly discovered phytonutrients (plant nutrients) —some set the stage for the activity of others or work synergistically with them, while some neutralize or balance the effects of others. When we take a supplement, we're often ingesting a much larger amount of a single nutrient than would be obtained from food. Isolating one nutrient normally found in the diet, then artificially boosting is not as effective as eating the whole food.

Whole Foods, But Not Supplements, Consistently Protect Against Disease

Literally hundreds of epidemiological studies have looked at the relationship between nutrient-rich whole foods and chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. Eating more whole foods has consistently been shown to result in decreased incidence of disease. Those individuals eating the diet that contains the most fresh vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains and omega-3 rich seafood are always in the group found to have the lowest risk, whatever the disease.

Whole Foods Protect against Cardiovascular Disease

Population studies clearly and consistently report that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is protective against cardiovascular and many other chronic diseases. This is likely due to the fact that a fruit and vegetable rich diet naturally contains vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, antioxidants and a wide array of active compounds that act synergistically to prevent disease and produce health.

In three of the largest, most significant studies that have looked at the relationship between diet and cardiovascular disease—the DART study, the GISSI trial, and the Lyon Heart Study—a whole foods diet consistently and significantly reduced cardiovascular disease risk and mortality.

According to a recent news roundup in the British Medical Journal, the combined evidence of a number of large population-based surveys suggests that for every additional portion of fruit or vegetables eaten, the risk of getting heart disease is reduced by 4%. In one population study, postmenopausal women who ate 10 daily servings of fruit and vegetables lowered their risk of heart attack by 40%.

In the Lyon Heart Study, those following the simple guidelines of increasing their consumption of vegetables, fruit, whole grains and legumes, while decreasing their consumption of saturated fat and eating healthy fats such those in olive oil, nuts and seeds, were found to have dropped their risk of death from cardiovascular disease by an amazing 70% after 27 months. And another recent study found that just eating a handful of nuts each day translates into a 30% reduction in cardiovascular disease risk.

The DASH (Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension) study demonstrated that a higher intake of whole grains, fruits and vegetables can lower blood pressure. In this trial, a whole foods diet produced an average drop of systolic and diastolic blood pressure of 12mm/6mm in a group of individuals with moderately elevated blood pressure.

Why are all these studies producing such consistently positive results? Here are just a few of the reasons:

  • Foods rich in soluble fiber, such as oats, beans, and nuts, have been shown to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol significantly, not only in persons with high cholesterol, but even in healthy subjects.
  • The fiber in a whole foods diet also lowers serum triglycerides, its potassium and magnesium drop blood pressure and its rich supply of antioxidants, such as vitamin E, protect cholesterol from free radical damage.
  • The healthy polyunsaturated fats found in nuts significantly improve the quality of LDL cholesterol and body’s ability to process and clear it.
  • Diets rich in plant foods are also high in arginine, an essential amino acid that research is now beginning to focus on as an essential constituent of nitric oxide (NO). A vasodilator, NO relaxes blood vessels, improving blood flow.

With all these beneficial actions, it’s not surprising that epidemiological studies have all indicated that a whole foods diet protects against cardiovascular disease.

Whole Foods Protect Against Athrosclerosis

A recently completed study on the effects of whole foods on atherosclerosis will soon be published in abstracts at the May 2005 meetings of the American Heart Association and the American Society of Hypertension. For more than three years, Dr. Mark Houston, Associate Clinical Professor at Vanderbilt School of Medicine and Director of the Hypertension Institute in Nashville, has followed a group of 50 cardiovascular patients, tracking a hallmark of the progression of cardiovascular disease—the amount of calcium being laid down in their coronary arteries.

“Statistically, calcium deposition as measured by EBT scores goes up about 50% per year. Study subjects have made no other lifestyle changes other than consuming two products made from concentrated whole foods—Juice Plus and Vineyard Plus.” “If concentrated whole foods products can lower the rate of calcium deposition, then we will broaden our approach in cardiovascular treatment to emphasize a whole foods diet,” says Houston.

Houston became interested in a whole foods approach to atherosclerosis when his review of the epidemiological literature clearly showed that whole foods did reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease, but when he looked for the prospective clinical trials that had proven the benefits of whole foods, he found none. A medical pioneer who, in addition to his clinical work is also Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the American Nutraceutical Association, Dr. Houston decided to do his own prospective trial.

Houston has measured not only calcium deposition, but also a wide array of indicators of oxidative stress that the latest research shows clearly impacts cardiovascular disease. Houston will initially report the calcium EBT scores, then, as the wealth of data he is gathering is analyzed, we can look forward a number of articles presenting the correlations between whole foods consumption and reductions in oxidative stress.

Whole Foods Protect against Cancer

Bruce N. Ames, PhD, the renowned U. C. Berkeley nutritionist, reports that more than 200 epidemiological studies indicate that a diet high in fruits and vegetables can reduce cancer risk. A whole foods diet is richly endowed not only with all the well known vitamins and minerals, but also with literally hundreds of phytonutrients whose benefits researchers are just beginning to uncover.

The following provide just a few examples:

  • Substantial evidence suggests that the folic acid abundant in vegetables, especially leafy greens, reduces the risk of colon cancer as well as cardiovascular disease.
  • Broccoli and other members of the cruciferous vegetable family contain glucosinolates that turn on and turn up enzymes that detoxify carcinogenic substances.
  • Regular consumption of tomatoes, which are rich in a phytonutrient called lycopene, is highly correlated with a lower risk of developing prostate cancer.
  • Powerful anthocyanins found in blueberries, which have a dramatic ability to penetrate cell membranes and provide cells with antioxidant protection, can decrease levels of inflammation and help prevent DNA damage throughout the body.

New Scientific Findings on Whole Foods

Lycopene, whose most publicized source is tomatoes, has been touted as a cancer-preventive supplement—despite the fact that the data supporting such a belief has been drawn from epidemiological and population studies of patterns of food consumption, not on the use of supplemental lycopene.

The Harvard study that put lycopene in the public limelight reviewed the eating patterns of nearly 48,000 men and showed that consuming tomato sauce a couple of times a week lowered prostate cancer risk.

The reduction in prostate cancer risk was even greater when tomato sauce intake was considered. Men who ate two or more servings of tomato sauce each week were 23% less likely to develop prostate cancer during the study period than men who ate less than one serving of tomato sauce each month. Could it be possible that lycopene is simply a marker—the tip of the cancer-protective phytonutrient iceberg—and not the only reason why tomatoes are beneficial?

Whole Foods Team Up to Provide Greater Cancer Protection

Researchers are just beginning to develop the tools to cope with the astounding interactive complexity of hundreds of nutrients found in whole foods. A study presented in July 2004 was the first to look at the combined effects of just two foods, broccoli and tomatoes. Prior to this, researchers have zeroed in on one, or at most, a couple of nutrients.

A study presented July 15, 2004, at the two-day WCRF/AICR International Research Conference on Food, Nutrition and Cancer in Washington, D.C., examined the effect of eating whole foods in combination instead of isolated nutrients, and not surprisingly, the beneficial synergy among nutrients that results when we consume a variety of healthful foods beats taking single nutrients by a mile.

According to this research, eating broccoli along with tomatoes maximizes the cancer protection both foods provide.

In the study, rats fed a tomato-and-broccoli combo had way less prostate tumor growth than rats given diets containing either food alone or normal rat chow diets supplemented with lycopene (a cancer-fighting carotenoid isolated from tomatoes) or finasteride (the drug commonly prescribed to men with benign prostatic hyperplasia or BPH).

When the results were analyzed, the researchers were surprised to find that all of the diets (tomato-and-broccoli, tomato, broccoli, and lycopene) were more effective in suppressing prostate tumor growth than the drug (finasteride).

At a press conference, lead researcher John W. Erdman, Ph.D., Professor of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana, explained the rationale behind this new approach to nutrition research:

“We decided to look at these foods in combination because we believed it was a way to learn more about real diets eaten by real people. People don’t eat nutrients, they eat food. And they don’t eat one food; they eat many foods in combination."

Erdman also noted, "Studies that examine individual substances in isolation are simply not designed to tell us anything about the interactions that occur between those substances, much less between foods that each contains its own anti-cancer arsenal.”

Erdman and his colleagues may have been inspired to try this novel approach by research they published in the November 2003 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. In this study, lycopene alone offered rats little protection from prostate cancer, while diets containing freeze-dried tomato powder greatly improved their prostate cancer survival.

In the new study, Erdman chose to combine tomatoes with broccoli, another food with well-studied anti-cancer effects. Compounds in broccoli called glucosinolates are converted in the intestines into compounds that increase liver enzymes' ability to clear carcinogens before they can cause harm.

Erdman was quick to assert that the food synergy between tomatoes and broccoli is not unique, that “This interactivity is likely taking place in any diet high in a variety of plant foods – fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans.”

His colleague, Jeff Prince, Vice-President for Education at the American Institute for Cancer Research, echoed Erdman’s belief: “The take-home message isn’t just about tomatoes and broccoli. The inferences to be drawn are more tentative and a lot broader. A lycopene supplement may not hurt you, but the whole tomato can help you more. A whole tomato may help you, but a tomato eaten with broccoli will help you more. Tomato with broccoli may help you, but a medley of different vegetables eaten together will bolster the body’s different defenses against chronic disease.”

Nutrient Synergy Needed for Cancer Prevention

Charles E. Elson, a University of Wisconsin at Madison nutritionist, suspects that the cumulative interactive effect of the multitude of active compounds found naturally in fruits and vegetables can be more effective than supplements, which, in comparison, go it alone. Instead of focusing on one micronutrient, Elson is developing research that will analyze the cumulative, synergistic effects of many of many phytonutrients which, he suspects, account for much of the anti-cancer effects of fruits and vegetables.

The conclusion scientists have drawn from hundreds of studies is that cancer protection must come from a combination of phytochemicals, not isolated nutrients. In an article in the December 2004 issue of the Journal of Nutrition, Dr. Rui Lui of Cornell University sums up current thinking when he writes,

"It is now widely believed that the actions of the antioxidant nutrients alone do not explain the observed health benefits of diets rich in fruits and vegetables, because taken alone, the individual antioxidants studied in clinical trials do not appear to have consistent preventive effects. Work performed by our group and others has shown that fruits and vegetable phytochemical extracts exhibit strong antioxidant and antiproliferative activities and that the major part of total antioxidant activity is from the combination of phytochemicals.

The additive and synergistic effects of phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables are responsible for these potent antioxidant and anticancer activities and the benefit of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is attributed to the complex mixture of phytochemicals present in whole foods.

This explains why no single antioxidant can replace the combination of natural phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables to achieve the health benefits. The evidence suggests that antioxidants or bioactive compounds are best acquired through whole-food consumption, not from expensive dietary supplements.

We believe that a recommendation that consumers eat 5 to 10 servings of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables daily is an appropriate strategy for significantly reducing the risk of chronic diseases and to meet their nutrient requirements for optimal health."

Whole Foods Protect against Diabetes

A whole foods’ diet also provides well-established benefits for persons with diabetes. In addition to its high levels of anti-inflammatory antioxidants and phytonutrients, which lessen the damage that high blood levels of glucose would otherwise cause, the excellent supply of fiber provided by a whole foods diet slows digestion, lowering insulin requirements, providing better control of blood glucose, and reducing blood cholesterol levels. This combination of benefits is so powerful that the Nurses Health Study indicates a whole foods diet may be the most successful treatment available for managing onset of the insulin resistance that characterizes early stage type 2 diabetes.

Whole Foods versus Refined Foods Diet

Inconsistencies in epidemiologic findings relating grain fiber to chronic disease can be explained by distinguishing between studies that use nutrient-rich whole grains, which retain their outer layers where their fiber and phytonutrients are concentrated, versus those using nutrient-poor refined grains. Whole grain fiber consumption is associated with a reduced mortality risk in comparison to a similar amount of refined grain fiber.

In the Iowa Women's Health Study, 11,040 postmenopausal women consumed the same total amount of grain fiber, but differed in the proportion of fiber they consumed from whole versus refined grain. These women were followed from 1986 through 1997, and when the data collected was analyzed, it was found that those women who consumed the majority of their fiber from whole grains were much less likely to die from cardiovascular disease than their counterparts eating refined grains.

Specifically, those women who consumed an average 4.7 grams of fiber from whole grains along with another 1.9 grams of fiber from refined grains in their 2,000 calorie diets had a 17% lower mortality rate compared to women who consumed predominantly refined grain fiber: 4.5 grams of fiber from refined grains and only 1.3 grams of fiber from whole grains per 2,000 calories.

Another study of 12 women compared the benefits of a whole foods diet to a refined foods diet and demonstrated the positive effects of a phytonutrient rich diet on lipoproteins, antioxidant defenses and colon function.

In this trial, 12 women with high cholesterol followed a refined-food diet for four weeks after which they immediately switched over to a whole foods diet. At the end of each four week diet, the women’s fasting bloods levels of cholesterol and triglycerides were measured along with their fasting levels of antioxidant enzymes. Although both diets provided the same amount of calories and fat, the women ate 61% less saturated fat while on the whole foods diet and their intake of dietary fiber, vitamin E, vitamin C and carotene intakes were 160%, 145%, 160% and 500% more, respectively, than the refined-food diet period.

Not surprisingly, with the increase in fiber, colon function improved on the whole foods diet, which also caused a drop of 13% in total cholesterol, 16% in LDL-C (the most dangerous form of LDL cholesterol). In addition, blood levels of two antioxidants the body produces internally when needed to defend against free radical attack dropped precipitously: superoxide dismutase decreased 69%, and glutathione peroxidase dropped 35%.

Whole Foods Contain Compounds Essential to Health, But Not Yet in Supplements

One example is lactoferrin, an iron-binding protein present in milk, but not calcium supplements, that stimulates the growth of osteoblasts, the cells that build bone and inhibits the formation of osteoclasts, the cells responsible for breaking down bone.

New research published in the September 2004 issues of the journals Molecular Endocrinology and Endocrinology indicates that lactoferrin is an important regulator of bone growth that could be used in the treatment of bone disorders such as osteoporosis.

The moral of this story: drinking a glass of (preferably organic) cow's milk does more to build healthy bones than taking a calcium supplement.


According to an April 2003 WHO/FAO Expert Report, chronic diseases resulting from poor diet contributed to 59% of the 56.5 million deaths worldwide and nearly half the burden of global disease in 2001. Statistics from the NCA in Bethesda Maryland, show that only 23% of American adults eat at least five daily servings of fruit and vegetables, and only 4% of men consume nine servings. About 33% of the US population eats only two servings and another 4% eat even less than that.

Research is showing time after time that the beneficial effects of a diet composed of whole, unrefined foods cannot be matched by a diet based on refined foods, and expecting a handful of supplements to bridge the gap is simply not realistic. Whole grains, dark green and yellow/orange vegetables and fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds, contain high concentrations of antioxidant phenolics, fibers and numerous other phytonutrients that work together to offer protection against many types of chronic disease.

Practical Tip

Take the advice of the World Health Organization and eat a diet abundant in fruits and vegetables and low in foods that are high in saturated fats and sugars and combine it with an active lifestyle to fight chronic diseases including obesity, cancer, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. Supplements should supplement a healthy diet.


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