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Understanding the meaning of whole and what it implies

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A fundamental principle of whole food plant-based eating centres on our ability to appreciate what, in nutrition speak, the concept of whole actually means. The WFPB use of the word whole has more to it than the consumption of the whole apple only.

For those that don’t want to delve any deeper, the ‘whole apple only’ explanation is a perfectly adequate definition which, when followed to the letter, should result in generally good health, but there’s one more step.

You need to know that you can’t automatically eat this way and expect to enjoy optimal health if you don’t also eat a wide variety of foods. We call it, eating the rainbow – eat as wide a range of coloured fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes as you can and don’t hold back on the starches.

As always, though, the details can be much more complicated, especially when the nutritionists step in. Suddenly, the health of anything can only be explained by understanding the detail of its parts.

For example, if a fruit is found to contain vitamin C, and vitamin C is identified as important to human health, then that ingredient has a stand-alone value bigger than the whole, even though it is only a part. If this is true, then you must be able to split it off and recreate it as a supplement and that, too, must be good for you, perhaps even better than the full apple, right? Unfortunately, the correct answer here is a very definite no.

The reductionist view

Dr T Colin Campbell sees this as a ‘reductionist versus whole’ view of science and, in his book Whole, he explains it this way:

“The reductionist mind cannot see the apple as promoting health and leave it at that. If apples are good for us, it can’t be the whole apple. There must be some tiny part of the apple, some chemical inside the apple, that is responsible for its beneficial effects. And our job is to extract that thing from the apple and figure out exactly how much of it people need on a daily basis.

“Under the reductionist mindset, healthy eating becomes a crapshoot of nutrient micromanagement—a list of individual nutrients that must be consumed in specific, regimented quantities. But in nature, you don’t find beta-carotene on its own. You can’t cut a slice of beta-carotene out of a carrot.

“Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop the supplement industry from trying.”

Campbell doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the efficacy of supplements. In fact, he says, the entire industry is founded on “the techno-fantasy that we can get all our nutritional needs met by powders, pills, or cubes; this industry has been relentless in analyzing foods known to promote health so it can extract and synthesize their active agents.

“We’ve already seen how the medical community treats disease with individual chemicals synthesized or isolated from their natural origins.”

He says the natural medicine and pharmaceutical industries do the same thing although, he suggests, the supplement industry has been “more effective in spreading its propaganda than the pharmaceutical industry.”

And “When the findings of a large number of studies are collectively evaluated, there is little or no evidence that routine vitamin supplementation improves health. Researchers have looked long and hard, in vain and using lots of money, for verifiable reductions in cardiovascular disease, cancer, and total mortality as a result of supplementation. Some of the best studies show that not only is reductionist supplementation not beneficial, it can actually be harmful.”

As Campbell views it, the reductionist case for supplementation completely underestimates the “complexity of nutrition” – that “sometimes a combination of nutrients is more (or less) than the sum of its parts” and that the body determines how many nutrients from the food we consume are indeed used. Apples provide an excellent example.

“It is now clear,” he says, “that there are hundreds if not thousands of chemicals in apples, each of which, in turn, may affect thousands of reactions and metabolic systems. This enormous number and concentration of vitamin C–like chemicals in apples poses a serious challenge to the notion that a single chemical—vitamin C or anything else—is responsible for the major health-giving properties of apples.”

Photo Credit: Onur Yumlu,

Peter Barclay
Peter Barclay
Has a professional background in journalism, photography and design. He is a passionate Kiwi traveler and an ardent evangelist for protecting all the good things New Zealand is best known for. With his wife Catherine is also the co-owner of Wholefoodliving.

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