Despite brilliant and life-changing advances in nutritional science, especially in the first half of the 20th century, we humans seem to be getting bigger. And our cardiovascular and metabolic systems are suffering.
Following 20 years of research, Professor David Raubenheimer and Professor Stephen Simpson from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre have suggested a new framework in which to approach human nutrition with respect to obesity and our cardiometabolic health.
Nutritional geometry – a new way to analyse the diet and health relationship
Nutritional geometry is a modeling framework that seeks to analyse what we eat and how it impacts our health holistically by incorporating ecological and evolutionary theory behind food needs and food choice.
“The ‘nutritional geometry’ framework enables us to plot foods, meals, diets and dietary patterns together based on their nutrient composition, and this helps researchers to observe otherwise overlooked patterns in the links between certain diets, health and disease,” says Professor Raubenheimer.1
In other words, as opposed to focusing on a single nutrient, we should be looking at the food in its entirety and the context in which it is consumed, using this as a treatment approach when working with particular conditions – like obesity and associated cardiometabolic disease.
Keeping sights set on one nutrient to cure all may no longer be an effective strategy, the researchers suggest.
It was this reductionist approach that led scientists to believe that a single nutrient could cause obesity and associated cardiometabolic disease in the mid 20th century. Fat and carbohydrates became the subjects of intense focus, and conjecture among experts of their role in weight gain and cardiometabolic diseases remains (leaving many people confused!).2
But foods and dietary patterns are complex! They provide a mixture of nutrients, working in synergy to effect health outcomes. Rather than isolated nutrients, the nutritional geometry modeling system focuses on how the mixtures of nutrients and dietary components interact. It can help to determine “nutritional properties of foods and how foods in turn combine into meals, diets, and dietary patterns to influence health.”2
The ecology of nutrition
Whilst the complex interaction between nutrients and human physiology is an important component of evaluating the impact of food on health and disease, the quantity, quality, and context in which a whole food is eaten is important.
The term ‘Nutrition Ecology’ seeks to address this, by examining the effects of foods from four aspects – the society, the economy, the environment, and human health.3 All are deeply connected to what and how we eat,4 and the nutritional geometry modeling framework discussed above considers such factors.
“This multilevel framework provides contact points across the many domains that affect human nutrition, from biology to economics and other influential facets of modern food environments”.1 This enables multiple influences to be integrated into a single model to help ascertain what myriad of factors may contribute to a disease.
Such influences include sustainability (including impact on the environment, accessibility, and maintaining a global food supply); the inundation of clever marketing; the modern-day exposure to an abundance of food-stuff; and our cultural and emotional connection to food. And all can be considered for their impact on human health.
This is an exciting approach to human nutrition and addressing various disease conditions, which needn’t be limited to obesity and cardiometabolic issues.
For now, perhaps consider the food you choose from a holistic perspective. Give thought to why you are eating something (did a shiny fancy label attract you to buy/are you actually hungry/are you stress-eating through the bag of potato crisps?), and focus on enjoying real food that is high quality, seasonal, and locally grown.
Being mindful and considerate of what and how you eat can benefit your health, and perhaps that of the globe – whereas mindlessly chomping down on the heavily processed and refined stuff probably won’t.
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By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut. Med.)
- University of Sydney 2016, ‘Researchers develop new framework for human nutrition’, viewed 4 August 2016, <http://sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2016/08/01/researchers-develop-new-framework-for-human-nutrition-.html>
- Raubenheimer, D & Simpson, SJ 2016, ‘Nutritional Ecology and Human Health’, Annual Review of Nutrition, p. 603.
- Schneider, K, & Hoffmann, I 2011, ‘Nutrition ecology–a concept for systemic nutrition research and integrative problem solving’, Ecology Of Food And Nutrition, vol. 50, no. 1, pp. 1-17.
- Allison, DB, Bassaganya-Riera, J, Burlingame, B, Brown, AW, Le Coutre, J, Dickson, SL, Van Eden, W, Garssen, J, Hontecillas, R, Khoo, CH, Knorr, D, Kussmann, M, Magistretti, PJ, Mehta, T, Meule, A, Rychlik, M, & VA[paragraph]gele, C 2015, ‘Goals in Nutrition Science 2015-2020’, Frontiers in Nutrition, viewed 4 August 2016, <http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnut.2015.00026/full>