We are halfway through the #800gChallenge™! That’s more than 11,000 grams (g) per person of fruits and veggies (more than 24 pounds!). Hopefully, this challenge is introducing you to a useful tool to make better food choices. But it is also up to the user to optimize the #800g metric for them. One of the best ways everyone can optimize it is to eat a diverse array of whole foods to hit their 800g total.
Some label specific foods as “superfoods,” due to a high concentration of certain nutrients within them (e.g., blueberries for vitamin C). It is often implied these short list of foods are a “magic bullet” to health. But the practical summary of these “superfood” lists is: the best superfoods are whole foods. Trying to suggest that certain types of whole foods are any more or less valuable than other types of whole foods is flawed for a variety of reasons.
There are 13 essential vitamins and 15 essential minerals. When presented with information about one specific vitamin, the first question you should ask is “what about the other 27 essential micronutrients?” (1,2). This also does not include considerations for essential macronutrients like amino acids in proteins and omega-3 fatty acids. The total number of “essential” nutrients (i.e., they must be obtained from the diet) is approximately 40 (3). Targeting one food because of a couple specific nutrients is not the complete picture.
There are also phytochemicals: non-nutritive but bioactive plant chemicals with health-protective properties (4). For example, some phytochemicals (glucosinolates) may be called “cancer-fighting compounds” because of their anti-cancer properties (5). However, phytochemicals include at least 5,000 different chemicals with other important functions, some not yet known (4). It would be foolish to limit one’s diversity of whole food material simply to those where we have data.
It is a nice idea that simplifying one’s diet to a short list of foods will lead to optimal health. But highlighting a handful of nutrients incorrectly applies a reductionist approach to more complex physiology. Yet, understanding the complex physiology is not necessary for application. Eating whole foods more often than not, and varying the diversity of those whole foods, provides a method for optimization without complexity. You can try and track all the micronutrients, phytochemicals, etc., to ensure your diet optimizes each one. It will be a rather painstaking process, however, and not necessarily put you in a better position than consistently eating a diet of varied whole, unprocessed food. This is why the #800gChallenge™ rewards diversity with a point, but it is still up to the user to get diversity across their days as well.
Most people eat the same 20 foods (6), yet there are more than 200 fruits and vegetables to choose from! One way to get some nice variation in the diet is to eat seasonally or locally.
Variety Works in the Long Haul
Besides the nutrient diversity gained from varying one’s diet, another valuable aspect of variance is sustainability. Even if there were a handful of foods that led to optimal health, there is the very real problem that long-term adherence would be rather dismal if people could only eat five different things. The diet would be so monotonous that many would fail not long after they started. Even though iceberg lettuce might not be as nutrient dense as kale, if it adds some variety (while also displacing poorer quality items), the end result is an overall win.
The #800gChallenge™ is a good simplified metric to measure daily quality in one’s diet. It is not foolproof, however, and it is up to the individual to correctly apply it to their daily choices for optimal nutrient intake.
- United States National Library of Medicine (USNLM). (2015 Feb 9). Definitions of Health Terms: Minerals. MedlinePlus. Retrieved Dec 10, 2017, from: https://medlineplus.gov/definitions/mineralsdefinitions.html
- United States National Library of Medicine (USNLM). (2015 Apr 2). Vitamins. MedlinePlus. Retrieved Dec 10, 2017, from: https://medlineplus.gov/vitamins.html
- Ames, B.N. (2015). Moderate Deficiency of an Essential Vitamin or Mineral Accelerates Diseases of Aging. Retrieved Dec 10 2017, from: https://www.uncnri.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Ames-NC-Kann.pdf
- Liu, R.H. (2013). Health-Promoting Components of Fruits and Vegetables in the Diet. Advances in Nutrition, 4, 384S-392S. doi:10.3945/an.112.003517
- Prakash, D., & Gupta, C. (2012). Glucosinolates: the phytochemicals of nutraceutical importance. Journal of Complementary & Integrative Medicine, 9, Article 13. doi: 10.1515/1553-3840.1611
- Brady, D.M., Bralley, J.A., & Lord, R.S. (2012). Laboratory Evaluations for Integrative and Functional Medicine. R.S. Lord & J.A. Bralley (Eds.) Duluth, Georgia: Metametrix Institute.