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June 15, 2015 | 2 minute read

Study: Nutrient versus Food for Disease Prevention, Who Wins?

What do you think is better at preventing cancer and other chronic diseases: A) a potassium supplement or B) a banana?

If you think like a group of college students, a new study suggests you’ll answer A.

banana potassium LABELEDThe study looked at which of two schools of thought was most common when it comes to the connection between diet and disease. On the one hand is the belief that nutrients like potassium are the most critical for preventing disease. Others take the stance that the whole foods that contain these nutrients are the key to better health.

In the study, about 110 participants read scenarios describing an active, generally healthy, young man named “Steve” who was living a typical American middle-class lifestyle. The description of his diet either emphasized “healthy” nutrients (potassium, omega-3s, vitamin C, calcium, and iron) or “healthy” whole foods (bananas, fish, oranges, milk, and spinach). Participants were then asked how likely they thought Steve was to experience different diet-related chronic diseases in his lifetime.

Overall, the college students estimated Steve was at lower risk of developing cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes when his diet was nutrient-focused rather than whole food-focused.

While this was not entirely unexpected, note the authors, it may have significant negative public health implications. If most people think like these students, they may be focusing on nutrients rather than making the best food choices for their health.

Research now suggests that it is the synergy of the different compounds in foods working together that offers the strongest protection against chronic disease. And the latest recommendations for the new Dietary Guidelines, along with AICR, suggest focusing on not just whole foods, but dietary patterns. Increasing fruits and vegetables, for example, increases your intake of a variety of beneficial nutrients. AICR also advises against relying on supplements when it comes to cancer prevention.

Food and supplement companies often promote the view that nutrients are supreme. This reductionist view misses out on the health benefits of foods beyond the isolated vitamins and minerals they contain.

Foods provide far more than a few nutrients, minerals, or healthful phytochemicals. A banana, for example contains fiber, magnesium, plenty of vitamins, carotenoids, and flavonoids in addition to potassium. Plus, they taste great!

Now is the time to spread the word that, when it comes to the epic battle of potassium supplement vs. banana, banana wins.

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