Nutrition: Eat simple to eat healthy by adopting the “3V rule”

What if eating well was actually “very easy”? A fundamental notion behind this goal, which we touched on in a previous analysis, is the importance of returning to a more holistic view of our foods – to stop, therefore, reducing them to isolated and independent nutrients.

Food and overall health (which includes the individual in his environment) are indeed interconnected, which we conceptualized as the 3V rule: for “True” (in relation to the degree of food processing), “Vegetal” (ratio plant / animal products) and “Varied” (dietary diversity). The degree of food processing was the missing link in arriving at simple recommendations.

We were able to arrive at this observation by adopting an empirical-inductive and holistic approach (inductive, because we start from the real to go back to the theory, and holistic, for our search for links between the parts of complex systems that are food and ‘food).

An order that is not trivial

First, the order of these three dimensions that we evoke is not trivial for our food choices. To eat healthy and sustainable, you have to respect a hierarchy starting with the “True” rule and separate “Real” foods from ultra-processed foods. Then, within the so-called “real” foods, it is advisable to favor the “Vegetal” and, finally, for the “True” and “Vegetable” foods (and animals) it is necessary to seek to “Vary” – by favoring, in the wherever possible, organic, local and / or seasonal to improve the environmental footprint and micronutrient levels.

To the “True” dimension, three sub-rules must be added, related to the degree of transformation:

  • favor whole starchy foods over refined ones;

  • favor solid to liquid food forms;
  • do not have too heavy a hand on the addition of salt, sugar and / or fat (ingredients extracted from their original matrix).

You don’t need to know more to eat well, both for yourself and the planet.

The “3V” rule, for real, vegetable and varied: a fundamental question of hierarchy for healthy and sustainable food choices © Anthony Fardet and Edmond Rock (via The Conversation)

In addition, it is good to underline that while the “True” rule addresses the “matrix” effect of foods (their general structure), the “Vegetal” and “Varied” rules concern the “composition” effect. .

Thus, the farmer-breeder produces the “Vegetal” and the “Varied” (and therefore the supply of nutrients and calories to the population) while the processor produces the “True”… or not. At the end of the chain, the consumer buys food in stores one by one (not directly a diet), and must therefore first be concerned with the “True” rule (therefore the degree of processing) for his choices. Then, to build up his diet, he chooses his “plant / animal product” ratio and the diversity (or even the origin) of his foods.

In other words: “The“ food matrix ”governs the metabolic fate of nutrients. The “matrix” orders, the nutrients obey! “

Second, because of its holistic and generic nature, the 3V rule is presented as a simple indicator for monitoring the overall quality of a diet over time. Depending on the adequacy of these rules, we can determine whether this diet, especially at the scale of a country (ecological study), deviates or not from overall health. We have done this work for two countries over the past thirty years: a developed country, France, and a large emerging country, China, representing around 18% of the world’s population.

Are we heading in the right direction?

The campaign 2019 © Public Health France

Evolution of the French regime (1998-2015)

In France, in 2015, young people (under 18), adults (18-79 years) and people over 65 respectively consumed approximately 46, 35 and 27% of ultra-processed calories per day (rule “True”), and 39, 36 and 36% animal calories per day (“Vegetal” rule).

In terms of nutritional intake (“Varied” but also “Vegetal” rules), there is no significant deficit on a large scale within the French population, but we can note in children too high intakes of free sugars ( > 10% of total caloric intake), and a suboptimal coverage of fibers, linoleic and α-linolenic acids, EPA, DHA, vitamins A and E, copper and magnesium; in adults, suboptimal coverage of fiber, EPA, DHA, magnesium, vitamins A and C; and in the elderly a suboptimal coverage in fibers, linoleic and α-linolenic acids, EPA and DHA (omega-3 essential for the membranes of our cells), vitamin C, calcium, iron, zinc and potassium.

Between 1998 and 2015, while children increased the share of ultra-processed calories from 43% to 46%, and vegetated their plate from 46% to 39% of animal calories per day, adults reduced ultra-processed calories by 39%. to 35% and also reduced animal calories by 40-36%. Children are therefore clearly more targeted by ultra-processed products than adults, and the same phenomenon is observed in other countries. During the same period, the prevalence of obesity and type 2 diabetes has doubled.

This high consumption of ultra-processed and animal calories, far from the optimum of 3V, can be explained in part by the supply in supermarkets and hypermarkets where nearly 60% of French people regularly visit.

A supermarket shelf © PxHere – CC0

We thus calculated the 3V adequacy of the average shopping cart of 708 very regular customers in 122 hypermarkets of a leading brand to reach the average figures of 41% animal calories and 61% ultra-processed calories. In addition, the further the customers deviate from the “True” rule, the further they deviate from the “Varied” rule.

However, a 3V shopping cart would cost around 5% less, in particular by replacing ultra-processed animal calories with True and Vegetable products.

The overall French diet is therefore not sustainable and would require a reduction of around 50% in animal and ultra-processed calories per day, while increasing variety.

Evolution of the Chinese regime (1990-2019)

In China (approximately 1.40 billion inhabitants), over the last thirty years, the consumption of industrially processed calories (data on ultra-processed foods not being available: for information, in France, nearly 70% of industrially processed calories are ultra-processed) and animal calories fell respectively from 9 to 30% and from 2 to 30% (see figure below).

While the total calorie consumption decreased by 9% with a marked improvement in the adequacy to nutritional needs, highlighting a greater variety of the diet. At the same time, the prevalence of obesity and type 2 diabetes increased by 1-6% and 2-11%, respectively, and cardiovascular disease mortality increased by 28-42%.

Over the period 1990-2019, evolution in China of the consumption of animal calories () and industrially processed () and changes in the prevalence of overweight () and obesity () © Anthony Fardet et Edmond Rock / Cambridge University Press (via The Conversation)

This example is interesting because the decrease in total caloric consumption associated with an improvement in the “Varied” rule did not prevent the development of chronic diseases, suggesting that a gradual move away from the “True” and “Vegetal” rules could. be much more relevant in explaining this progression. Meeting your nutritional needs therefore does not seem sufficient to stay healthy if the matrix quality of food, and therefore the quality of calories, deteriorates.

Although consumption data for ultra-processed foods is not known in China, the penetration rate of these foods in Asia is the highest in the world. Regarding developed countries, Anglo-Saxon countries consume even more ultra-processed calories per day, often over 50%.

China and Western countries combined, we therefore observe that a large part of the world population does not eat sustainably, with far too many animal and ultra-processed products (of which the underlying food system is not sustainable), and sometimes residual impairments.

Reduce your consumption of ultra-processed foods © Public Health France

Nutritionism and chronic diseases

Through the prism of the 3V rule, we can therefore observe that eating “Varied” and sufficiently “Vegetal” to provide all the necessary micronutrients is not sufficient to stay in good health if we deviate from the “True” rule – and therefore the matrix quality of calories and nutrients.

The vision centered on the only nutrients of the diet (called “nutritionism”), suggesting that it is enough to meet its nutritional needs to stay in good health, is therefore very insufficient to lead to informed, healthy and sustainable food choices: calorie quality matters more than quantity, and one may well consume fewer calories and more micronutrients, if they come from ultra-processed food matrices, chronic diseases will continue to progress.

In short, eating a balanced diet is much more than a matter of nutrients and calories, and obesity is not just about the difference between entering and leaving calories. The food matrix quality, reflected by the degree of processing, interferes between inputs and outputs, invalidating this reductionist and linear equation of weight gain.

However, it is true that originally ultra-processed foods push to consume more than reason by deregulating the act of eating, and therefore satiety. But without exceeding the recommended caloric intake and consuming only this type of food, you can also gain weight and / or become diabetic …

This analysis was written by Anthony Fardet, research fellow at the Human Nutrition Unit at the University of Clermont-Auvergne and Edmond Rock, research director at the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the environment (INRAE).
The original article was published on the website of
The Conversation.