I read an article in the Herald Sun on Saturday, debating whether we need supplements to be healthy. A personal trainer argued that we can get all our nutrients from real, whole foods and there is no need for additional supplements. A high profile pharmacist and herbalist, Gerald Quigley argued that supplements play a vital role for optimal health. So who is right?
As a dietitian, I am all for trying to get the nutrients our body needs from real food. Side note - I find it crazy that we have to explain food as “real” but with all the processed and packaged rubbish we call food these days, this is how we must define it now. Put simply, “real” whole foods are those in their most natural state. If it comes out of the ground (e.g veggies), off a tree (e.g fruit and nuts) or from an animal (like meat, chicken, fish, eggs, dairy) it is real food. The least amount of ingredients the better. Your body knows how to assimilate the nutrients found in these foods and often there are other compounds in the food that aid their absorption.
BUT….I do think most of us need some form of supplementation to meet our nutritional requirements.
1. We’re just not eating enough plant-based foods
I’m constantly telling people to amp up their greens as most people would benefit from doubling the veggies they eat. Yet very few people do this consistently. As the Herald Sun article states, only 2% are eating the recommended 5-6 serves of vegetables per day. Whole food supplements made from plants and herbs are a good insurance policy for the days you just don’t get enough veggies in. Something like an organic greens powder will do the trick. Your body knows exactly how to use the nutrients in these types of supplements because they are delivered in packages your body recognizes.
2. Soil Depletion
Another issue is the nutrient density of our fruit and vegetable supply. Most plant foods are considerably lower in key nutrients than they once were due to farming and agriculture. When plants are repeatedly grown on the same land, the soil becomes depleted of nutrients. If the nutrients aren’t in the soil, they aren’t in the food. In addition, a lot of plant foods sit on trucks, counters and shelves for weeks before being eaten. This means their nutrient content is also decreasing over time.
Even if you are eating all the veggies in the world, you still may be deficient in key nutrients such as magnesium.
3. Grain fed meat and conventional dairy
Compared to grass fed meat, grain fed meat is lower in omega-3 fats, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Herbivorous animals aren’t supposed to eat grains and as a result, they become malnourished. Quite often they will then be given antibiotics because they are prone to sickness from nutrient-deficient diets. Not only do we receive less nutrients from eating this type of meat, we are also drip feeding ourselves a low dose of antibiotics.
Organic, unpasteurized, full fat dairy can be good for you. Unfortunately this isn’t the type of dairy most people are consuming.
Pasteurization of conventional dairy destroys some of its nutrient content. Take the fat out of dairy and you lose even more nutrients as most of the vitamins and minerals are in the fat.
If you eat these types of foods, supplementation is definitely a good idea.
4. Our modern lifestyle
Your body needs nutrients to deal with toxins. The more toxins present, the more nutrients you need. Stress, lack of sleep, plastics like BPA, chemicals from household cleaners and hygiene products, toxins in food, unnatural lighting from things like iPhones and even high intensity exercise all increase our nutritional needs. Our bodies just weren’t designed to deal with all these demands and eating a whole food diet simply won’t cut it.
Supplements and herbs can also be very useful for individuals with special needs and to correct imbalances or nutritionally deficient diets (i.e. B12 on a vegan diet). Again, the best quality supplements are needed with all natural ingredients, preferably made from real food.
Beware: Supplements are not created equal!
There is such a HUGE difference in quality of supplements. As I’ve mentioned, whole food supplements made from plants and herbs are number one in my book. Your body knows exactly how to utilize these nutrients.
Synthetic supplements made in a lab are very different to these whole food supplements, as your body doesn’t recognize them as well and aren’t readily absorbed. For example, folate is an essential B vitamin found in foods such fruit and vegetables. Folic acid, on the other hand, is the synthetic form found in supplements. I know which form I would rather be taking.
Many supplement companies will also use the cheapest form of the synthetic nutrient and add nasty fillers and preservatives.
As a result, poor quality supplements could often do more harm than good. Take fish oil supplements for example. Most of them only contain around 30% EPA and DHA, meaning 70% of that capsule is an unknown filler. Quite often it will be whatever is cheapest, so something like corn oil, which is highly inflammatory. As a result, taking these types of supplements will be PRO-inflammatory instead of ANTI-inflammatory, the complete opposite of what we want.
We have to choose our supplements wisely!
I’m certainly not saying you can’t be healthy without something like a greens powder or supplements. If you eat an abundance of organic veggies with every meal, include nutrient dense foods like bone broth and organ meats, control the stress in your life, don’t take any medications and minimise the use of chemicals from body and household products, you will do just fine.
If, however, this doesn’t sound like you and you want to take your health to the next level, whole food supplements might just help.
The bottom line:
Get the majority of your nutrients from food. High quality supplements should only be used in the way the name suggests – to supplement a nutritious diet and healthy lifestyle.
When supplementing, quality is paramount and should be derived from whole food sources.
Everyone is unique with different needs and requirements, so don’t just take supplements willy nilly. Speak to a health professional before poppin’ any pills.