Food Synergy: The Case for Whole Foods

Dr. David Wiss

November 25, 2021


In the field of nutrition, there has traditionally been a “deficiency mindset” where efforts to identify deficiencies are followed by efforts to correct those deficiencies using those specific nutrients. Historically, this mindset has proven effective when widespread essential vitamin and mineral deficiencies stem from a lack of access to a balanced diet and have thus been addressed through public health initiatives such as fortification and enrichment. More recently, public health nutrition strategies that focus on single nutrients have led to a flourishing supplement industry, which is unregulated and highly controversial [1,2].

One of the biggest pitfalls in our understanding of how nutrition interacts with human biology is born from reductionistic approaches that aim to describe complex phenomena in terms of their individual (or reduced) parts. Reductionist research focuses on partial pathways rather than the whole system over time [3]. It appears that this focus on isolated nutrients rather than foods is in many ways counterproductive [4].

From an economic standpoint, it does make sense why so much nutrition research has been conducted this way. Controlled trials aim to investigate the effects of individual nutrients rather than whole foods because whole foods cannot be patented (into a proprietary blend) and repackaged, whereas individual nutrients can. Efforts to isolate compounds and identify their effects have great potential for high-impact discovery as well as profitability.

Take for example the difference between whole grain and refined grain. The benefits of whole grain accrue when all edible parts of the grain (bran, germ, endosperm) are combined into a fiber matrix that includes all its inherent phytochemicals (e.g., polyphenols) [5]. Adding supplemental fiber back into the refined grain will not achieve the same result.

Another example of reductionism in nutrition would be identifying beta-carotene (the precursor to vitamin A) as the important antioxidant in cantaloupe and thereby emphasizing (or studying) beta-carotene supplements over the consumption of the whole fruit. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of other health-promoting compounds in cantaloupe. It turns out these compounds work in concert with each other to confer health benefits (often referred to as a phytonutrient profile). 

The phytonutrients in these foods can be more than additive, making them synergistic. Combining food across different categories (e.g., adding cashew butter to the cantaloupe) contributes complexity to quantifying these effects. Research has shown that combining specific foods across different categories is more likely to result in synergistic antioxidant activity than combinations within the same food group [6].

For mental health and nutritional psychology, we need to switch our focus from achieving adequate nutrition to achieving optimal nutrition. One way forward may be through a better understanding of food synergy, or the notion that combining whole foods in their natural form is biologically superior to reductionistic approaches that stack individual nutrients on top of one another. Food synergy is the non-random mixture of food constituents that operate in concert to confer health benefits over time [4].

One mechanism for these synergistic effects may be through the gut microbiota. We know that the food we eat is not just food for our bodies—it is also food for the microbes living inside our bodies. Research has shown that beneficial gut bacteria thrive from our consumption of dietary fibers, foods rich in polyphenols (and other phytonutrients), and in the context of a broad range of vitamins and minerals present in the food [7–10]. The more we understand the interaction between our biology and the biological processes of the microbes that live inside us, the better we will discern which combinations of foods (rather than supplements) best promote health.

Meanwhile, the reductionistic philosophy of looking at single compounds with single effects is suitable for the motives of food and supplement companies but not so great for human health. The advent of vitamin- and mineral-fortified foods have given consumers the impression that these compounds by themselves are what matters. However, the synergistic effects of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber in combination contribute to health. Decades of research have shown no long-term benefit of supplementation compared to eating a well-balanced diet. Therefore, nutrition research should focus more strongly on foods and on dietary patterns than on individual nutrients [4].

In summary: whole food is superior to dietary supplements, which may be due to food synergy. The mantra of “food first” is our primary goal at Wise Mind Nutrition: using food-based nutrition to improve mental health. Dietary supplements can be helpful on the journey to optimal mental health or can be beneficial additions once dietary patterns improve. We are committed to getting you there, one bite at a time!  


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2. Yang C, Shi X, Xia H, Yang X, Liu H, Pan D, et al. The Evidence and Controversy Between Dietary Calcium Intake and Calcium Supplementation and the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Cohort Studies and Randomized Controlled Trials. J Am Coll Nutr. 2019;39(4):352–70.

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