Thought-tober: Isolation is an unpredictable science
In the world of health and nutrition, isolate a substance from the whole and all bets are off. We simply don’t really know the dynamic of isolating nutrients such as vitamins, fats, proteins, carbs or other molecules. Taken out of the context of the whole food and the natural balance of the other components of that food, we aren’t really sure what those isolated components do on their own. Can they serve a purpose? Yes. Do we really know if and when it is good or not? Not really.
Sugar is demonized. Butter is demonized. Vitamins are heralded. Drugs are either revered or hated. Salt is a public enemy. Resveratrol sales are off the charts. Should these substances be hated or loved and how can we know if we’re right?
Sugar can be one of the most therapeutic substances in certain circumstances but also tends to be very disruptive for our health. Same with concentrated fat. Vitamins, particularly multivitamins, are literally a shotgun approach to filling theoretical holes in health but can also fill in the gaps more quickly than almost any other option. Drugs can save you or kill you and it’s often hard to tell which is more likely. Salt is a food/nutrient that no one seems to be able to figure out or agree on whether we need it to live or if we should limit it at all costs. Resveratrol was a panacea not too long ago and now is a joke amongst many health practitioners.
What about protein powder? We think protein is “healthy” but is it when removed from the context of which it originates? Could it be worse to get protein in isolation?
Coconut oil and fish oil are all the rage right now. Those are isolated fats taken out of the context of the whole coconut or fish. We think they are “good” but do we really know they are? Could they be great in vitro and specific situations but irrelevant, neutral or even problematic in vivo or when used inappropriately?
Fiber supplements are another popular isolated nutrient. Fiber is a substance we evolved eating and can probably benefit from but is it good to have it in isolation outside of the fruit or vegetable it came from? Sometimes it seems to help but where exactly does it fit in everywhere else?
No matter the substance the bottom line is don’t be surprised if we find that the things we think are good end up being a problem and the things we think are bad end up being helpful. Or that isolated substances are both good and bad for us and we’re still trying to figure out when and how it goes from good to bad and vise versa.
Acute vs. Chronic
There does seem to be a interesting dynamic that may help us sort through a little of the uncertainty regarding isolated nutrients. It would appear that frequency and context go a long way toward determining the value of a substance. Isolated nutrients seem to be beneficial under acute doses in certain circumstances, much in the way medicine is designed for and administered. In a state of stress the body seems to be very receiving and can benefit from concentrated isolated nutrients. If deficient and in need, these acute doses of vitamins/minerals (i.e. vitamin C and magnesium), fat or even sugar can be akin to an oasis at the end of a desert journey. We’ve all experienced how good something is when we truly need it. Conversely, when the body is exposed to isolated nutrients repeatedly, particularly when not in need, it can be negatively impacted. This is why sugar gets such a bad rap. When people not in need of an acute dose of highly available energy get isolated energy over and over and over it’s like forcing that desert traveler to keep drinking from the water after being fully replenished and no longer thirsty. The body no longer needs it and if continual exposure to it may be problematic.
Just like using medication (i.e. antibiotics), there is a dose and a context that works. Using isolated substances in the wrong context, too much and/or too often is a recipe for an unpredictable outcome.
Any given substance may be fantastic but how do we know when it goes from helpful to unpredictable to potentionally harmful? Any substance may be thought of as bad but how do we know when it just might be the thing we need the most?
In the grand scheme of things nothing is inherently good or bad because context matters greatly when it comes to the human body and experience.
Just a few things to consider the next time you hear about the next great or terrible thing in the world of health.
Thanks for thinking, have a great day!
P.S. Could things in isolation be primarily a problem when paired with other things in isolation (i.e. sugar and fat together) or when not balanced with a opposite (vitamin A & D)?