The Importance of Dietary Pattern Approaches and the Food Matrix

Rather than targeting specific nutrients, a recent article highlights that nutrition strategies should emphasize dietary pattern approaches to healthy eating, which support the value of the food matrix and are inclusive of cultural and personal differences.

Femme lisant l'étiquette d'une bouteille de lait

A 2023 article addresses the importance of considering the impacts of the food matrix and overall dietary patterns when designing dietary recommendations, policies, and guidelines.

Diet quality is a recognized modifiable risk factor in the prevention and management of many noncommunicable diseases, which are the leading cause of mortality worldwide. In fact, the global nutrition transition towards highly processed, nutritionally poor foods have been attributed to rapidly increasing rates of these diseases. 

In the aim of mitigating the burden of these chronic diseases, nutrition strategies have historically relied on the absence or presence of certain nutrients. However, this article argues that solely targeting individual nutrients overlooks the importance of the food matrix, which is defined as the wide range of physical and chemical components in a food, as well as their unique, complex interactions that impact how the food is digested and metabolized. Furthermore, the authors caution that these approaches may have unintended repercussions, notably regarding nutrient adequacy, diet quality, and metabolic health. 

For example, certain labelling or scoring strategies may penalize dairy products due to their saturated fat content. Yet, robust data indicate that neither dairy nor dairy fat are associated with the adverse cardiometabolic outcomes that these strategies target, which is likely attributable in part to dairy’s unique composition and food matrix. Furthermore, such strategies often fail to consider the overall nutritional value of foods, such as dairy’s contribution to many other important nutrients consumed insufficiently by the general population.

Dietary guidelines are increasingly shifting away from this reductionist approach, in favour of considering dietary patterns that include whole foods and their matrices. The authors define the dietary patterns approach as a “holistic consideration of all elements, relationships, and effects of food on human health”. This study notes that a food system approach preserves the impact of the food matrix and may be more effective at promoting health. Authors comment that these strategies may improve robust nutrition education rather than potentially assigning “good” or “bad” values to foods, in addition to being better more inclusive of cultural and personal differences.

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