Whole Food Nutrition Versus Supplementation and the Reductionist Approach

A few weeks ago, I posted a (long) article called “Are You Getting the Nutrients You Need from Your Plant-Based Diet?“, written with my friend and book co-author, Matt Ruscigno, R.D.

It was a fun post to put together (especially the infographic, which I think is pretty handy), and I learned a lot in the process, as I always do when I work with Matt.

But a few of the comments in response to that post, along with T. Colin Campbell’s new book, Whole, left me with a nagging question:

Should we even bother worrying about individual nutrients, or is it enough to say “eat whole plant foods” and be done with it?

It’s a tough one — Campbell’s book makes a compelling argument that the only reason individual nutrients like iron, omega 3’s, all the letter vitamins, and even protein are in common parlance is the green stuff … and I mean money, not kale. “Eat whole foods” doesn’t sell magazines, pills, doctor visits, or surgeries; reductionist approaches to health do.

And yet on the other hand, those of us who eat plant-based are choosing a diet that’s very different from the norm in our society. Do we have a responsibility (to ourselves, our kids, the people to whom we recommend this diet) to know that we are, in fact, getting everything we’re “supposed” to?

To dive deeper into this issue, we sat down with Matt Ruscigno for Episode 14 of the NMA podcast — you might remember Matt, by the way, from his articles on protein and iron on No Meat Athlete.

In addition to being a vegan nutritionist, Matt’s an accomplished endurance athlete with a top-10 finish at the Furnace Creek 508, a 508-mile solo bike race through Death Valley and the cycling equivalent of the notorious Badwater Ultramarathon. Following our discussion of whole foods versus reductionism, we talk about that event and discuss some new details about the progress of the No Meat Athlete book and tour (lots more info coming very soon), in this laid-back episode of the podcast.


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As always, please leave us a rating and review on iTunes if you like the show, so that we know to keep ’em coming!

Here’s what we talk about in this episode:

  • Focusing on whole plant-based foods or supplements for vegans and vegan athletes (4:00)
  • The B12 discussion (7:00)
  • Do mega-doses of vitamins hurt more than they help? (22:00)
  • Matt Ruscigno’s experience as an endurance cyclist (28:00)
  • Occasional junk food isn’t going to kill you (33:00)
  • Progress with the No Meat Athlete book (42:30)

Links from the show:

Books we discussed:

Thanks for listening!



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  1. Good points I think.
    I take Michael Pollan’s point that you can’t take the nutrient from the food, the food from the diet or the diet from the lifestyle. I think it is best to get the nutrients we need from real food which is the way our bodies are designed to use them. We just don’t know enough about the way supplements effect us and there have been trials in which patients were given supplements only to find they actually got worse and the trials had to be abandoned.
    The only exception I make is B12 which simply isn’t available in whole vegan foods unless added as a supplement anyway. Some of my thoughts about it are here http://herbifit.com/2012/08/24/or-how-i-learnt-to-stop-worrying-and-love-b12/


  2. I’ve been an NMA reader for quite some time and am running my first ultra, a 50 miler, on Saturday. Just wanted to say thanks to Matt and the rest of the NMA contributors for all the training tips, amazing recipes and motivation that have helped me through the last six months of training. I look forward to listening to this podcast on Friday during the long drive to the race. Keep up the great work!

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