Why you are not the sum of the nutrients you eat | Dairy Australia: The food matrix

Torri Donley

We all know the saying, “You are what you eat”, but in recent decades there has been a widespread belief that you are the nutrients you eat. Flip through any magazine or newspaper story about health, and it’s easy to see that individual nutrients, such as saturated fat, calcium and […]

We all know the saying, “You are what you eat”, but in recent decades there has been a widespread belief that you are the nutrients you eat. Flip through any magazine or newspaper story about health, and it’s easy to see that individual nutrients, such as saturated fat, calcium and protein, have taken centre stage.

By focusing on specific nutrients within foods, it seems we’ve missed an important piece of the health puzzle. “Nobody eats nutrients in isolation,” says nutrition scientist Dr Tim Crowe. “If someone is deficient in iron, it’s perfectly fine to focus on nutrients, but when we’re talking about general health, we need to look at food as a whole.”

Nutrition scientist Dr Tim Crowe

By looking at complete foods rather than their individual building blocks, we get a much better understanding of how the physical and nutritional structures of food influence how we digest and absorb the nutrients inside. This is known as the food matrix – the idea that a food product is more than the sum of its nutrients. “Dairy is a good example of the food matrix because the individual nutrients in dairy foods can’t predict the overall health effects,” Crowe says.

Full-fat dairy has been off the menu for many years, mostly due to one nutrient it contains: saturated fat. This is because saturated fat is known to cause a rise of LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) and therefore put people at risk of cardiovascular disease (also known as heart disease). But it turns out what we thought we knew about saturated fat and full-fat dairy products, such milk, cheese and yoghurt, is wrong.

“For decades saturated fat was seen as an evil and terrible nutrient in terms of heart disease,” Crowe says. “But saturated fat is present to varying degrees in olive oil, avocado and cheese – and they are all beneficial, complex foods that are more than the sum of their nutrients. In fact, the research now on heart disease shows that saturated fat is neutral and, in some cases, can even be beneficial.”

Yes, that’s right.

After years of being told low-fat or skimmed dairy products are better for our health than full-fat dairy, there’s now confirmation that full-fat dairy, which contains saturated fat, doesn’t deserve its bad reputation. The Heart Foundation changed its healthy eating guidelines in 2019, saying that full-fat milk, cheese and yoghurt are nourishing dairy options for healthy Australians.

“This type of dairy was found to have a neutral effect, in that it doesn’t increase or decrease your risks for heart disease …” said Heart Foundation chief medical advisor, cardiologist Professor Garry Jennings. “Given this, we believe there is not enough evidence to support a restriction on full-fat milk, yoghurt and cheese for a healthy person, as they also provide healthy nutrients like calcium.”

While it may seem confusing that something like full-fat dairy has gone from being denounced to encouraged, Crowe believes it’s a result of research shedding light on the importance of the food matrix. “When you see the Heart Foundation has changed its advice about dairy, that adds a lot of credibility to show the research base has changed over time,” he says.

The whole food matrix has health experts rethinking the role of individual nutrients in our diet

That block of cheese or tub of yoghurt in your fridge is so much more than a bunch of individual nutrients – in fact, there are hundreds of bioactive compounds in natural foods like dairy. “These have beneficial effects on the body and it’s thought these effects may outweigh any potential theoretical harm from the saturated fat,” Crowe says.

What makes cheese and yoghurt so beneficial is, in part, because they are fermented products and contain bacterial cultures. While cheese does contain saturated fat, Crowe says this is only one component of what is a healthy food overall.

“Ideally you want to eat more foods that are linked with lower rates of heart disease,” Crowe says. “And you want to eat less junk food and fried food because they are linked with higher rates of heart disease.”

For Crowe, conversations around the health effects of food products rather than individual nutrients is long overdue. “I don’t think it’s helpful to talk about individual nutrients [unless you have a specific problem],” he says. “Unhealthy diets are linked with poor health and it’s a moot point if it’s due to saturated fat, too much salt or sugar. It’s the overall dietary pattern that is good or poor for your health. If you get the foods right, the nutrients will take care of themselves.”

So, the next time you have a hankering for a cheese platter or want to add a dollop of yoghurt to your smoothie, don’t feel guilty. Not only will your taste buds thank you, but your body will too.

Visit Dairy Australia’s website to learn more about the health benefits of dairy.

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