Saturday, August 21, 2010

Why supplement?

Recently I was asked about what I thought about using supplements.

Well... I happen to think a LOT about supplements and have more to say on the subject than the average consumer, so it was a very awkward question to ask me in the last 60 seconds of a car ride in which I was dropped off at home... I ended up saying something wish-washy like "food first" and "expensive urine" or some other weak comment.

What I would have said, given at least 30 minutes of this sweet man's time, was as follows: the only true indication for high-dose vitamin and mineral supplementation is when a deficiency exists.

I can say this with conviction based upon three major principles; firstly, on the principle of supplements being developed within the constraints of several hundred KNOWN nutrients and plant phytochemicals, secondly on the principle that such high doses of these known ingredients are not found naturally occurring in our foods, and thirdly, daily supplementation further removes us from the seasonality of nutrient intake that kept our ancestors alive for generations.

So let's pick these principles apart a bit more...

1. Supplements consist of several hundred KNOWN
nutrients and phytochemicals

Obvious? Perhaps. But it seems to me that this simple fact is often forgotten. You've seen the ads for various vitamin and supplement products. We all know that vitamin D and calcium are good for our bones.

Yet the conclusion that is drawn from the scientific research by capitalists always comes up lacking.

Vitamin D and calcium good for bone health? Easy! Take vitamin D and calcium supplements! But consider this, when we eat a food, for example - sardines, we get so much MORE than just vitamin D and calcium. In addition we get protein, zinc, phosphorus, copper, manganese, and potassium. All of these listed nutrients are important in bone health. Not only are they individually good for bone health, they work synergistically for bone health and a deficiency in one may impair the absorption and/or utilization of another.

Even if we took a pill with all of the known bone health nutrients, it still may not have the desired effect. Here's why, food supplies us with both a variety of scientifically sound "important" nutrients for health AND a boatload of nutrients we don't even know about yet that may be important for health.

If you thought we knew it all, think again. Not even do not know all of what is in our food that makes it good for us, it takes many many years of research to determine what levels of a particular nutrient are needed for normal body function, and what levels make it toxic to the body.

Which leads in perfectly to point #2.

2. Supplements supply nutrients and phytochemicals in doses higher than naturally occurring nutrients in our food supply

Toxicity of a nutrient occurs very rarely from food sources. The only one I can come up with off the top of my head might be vitamin A, if you ate like a whole cow liver and have renal failure... I'm sure there are other isolated cases, but nothing compared to the problems that can incur from vitamin and mineral supplementation of doses not of this natural world.

Every time a new wonder nutrient is found in connection to curing some disease, we play around with what is the right supplement dose of it to sell to the public. An example used often in my education was the example of vitamin E. Vitamin E is a great antioxidant so researchers felt that a population who would benefit greatly from antioxidant support was smokers, in the prevention of cancer. Sadly, vitamin E supplementation in this population led to and INCREASED risk of death from hemorrhagic stroke, and therefore vitamin E supplements are no longer indicated for smokers for the prevention of cancer.

Dietary sources of vitamin E are safe for smokers, and everyone else, because they are in their natural matrix, combined with many other health-supporting nutrients.

The idea that if a little of something is good for you, than a lot must be REALLY good is in one word: false.

Every time a new wonder nutrient is found, hundreds to thousands of our animal companions are put into scientific experiments to discover the toxicity levels. While I understand that this research in important to protect the health of humans, I find it's necessity a sad testament to species egotism.

I have heard the concern many times from folks about the changing levels of micronutrients in our world's soil related to conventional farming practices that may be depleting our entire food system of optimal micronutrient levels. I hear this concern in conjunction with notion that while vitamin and mineral supplements have not been needed in the past, they are needed now for prophylactic measures against deficiency.

While I 100% agree that nutrient soil depletion is a problem with our conventional food system, I believe it is a call to grow your own food and buy from small, local, organic vendors rather than a reason to run out and buy small, aesthetically pleasing packages of over-processed 'nutrients' from the same store shelves that support the monocultures and poor industry practices that contribute to soil depletion.

3. Supplements taken daily further remove seasonality of
nutrient and phytochemical intake

I'm not going to write too much here because really, Michael Pollan says it better than I in his books, and obviously, he is a much better writer than I.

But the cliff notes are as follows: there is a shift in the way we view our food, a shift away from seeing the plant or animal grow, followed by the harvest or kill, followed by the family meal - into a scientific, deconstructed idea of nutrients.

Traditional societies ate the food available, which at that time (depending on the location) may have been berries, fruit, and fresh meat in the fall, dried meats, squash, and preserves in the winter, tender greens and game animals in the spring, and a bounty of fresh vegetables and fish in the summer.

This traditional diet provides an abundance of particular nutrients at different points in the year. For example, vitamin C and D were rich in the summer months, while salt and B12 were rich in the winter months from preserved meats. Was this a mistake? Did mother nature F-up by varying the type and quantity of nutrients available throughout the year? I highly doubt it.

Now, with pills, we can take all the nutrients that we deem important in a fairly equal dose daily, around the calendar year - thus eliminating the peskiness of seasonality of our nutrition.

I have no research to share with you that will convince you that removing seasonality from our nutrition is a harmful practice, but taking supplements is a personal choice, in which I feel that you may benefit from a historical and seasonal perspective of nutrition to aid you in your decision to supplement, or not to supplement.

Personal reflections...

The Linus Pauling Institute, a source I trust and rely on for scientific advise for micronutrient use, recommends a multivitamin as well as additional vitamin C, D, E and calcium supplements daily. Even the Weston Price Foundation, my beloved source of traditional wisdom meets scientist, recommends cod liver oil as a supplement for everyone.

This presents an interesting ideological dilemma for me. You see, the science is important to me. And I know that there are many people across our world who are nutrient deficient and benefit from the science of dissecting our food into smallest of particles! However, with this science has followed the capitalistic ventures of a small percentage of the population who do not have YOUR best interest in mind when promoting supplementation.

Here in America, there are many people who are nutrient deficient, and this is a result of poverty and poor diet choices available for super cheap (among other things...). However, these are NOT the same folks buying dietary supplements. No, studies show that overwhelmingly, the heavy supplement users in this country are white, middle to upper class, and already in pretty good health. This is attributable to marketing, marketing, education, disposable incomes, and marketing. Did I mention marketing?

And so I guess my message is rather narrow in it's target audience; I plead to the white middle to upper class who take supplements as a precautionary measure to combat the frights of aging to consider how best to spend their money and worries in this complicated world:

Choice A) Buy supplements for $10-40 per bottle, hope they actually contain the ingredients listed (highly unregulated industry, often less than the stated quantity is inside, or else the potency of the ingredient is greatly diminished due to extraction methods, packaging, and shelf life, and worse case scenario possibly contaminated with heavy metals from processing), and hope to reap the benefits claimed by the label.

Choice B) Use the money you would have used for supplements and buy high quality produce and meat from your farmers market, not only nourishing your body and soul, but also contributing to a vibrant community by keeping your dollars local.

We are amazingly adaptive creatures, making due for all generations previously without the micronutrient support of pills through eating a varied, whole foods based diet rich in plants and healthy animals. Some folks are not in a financial place right now (myself included) to follow such guidelines to a T, but every way that you are able to support your health with wholesome foods is nourishing you in ways that scientists can't even fathom yet!

We are not just machines that need specific nutrients to function properly.
We are humans and we need food.

So eat up!! And show me some color on that plate!!


  1. Wasn't research also showing that there wasn't really a reason to supplement unless there is a deficiency? I prefer to not supplement except right now since I'm pregnant. Love the article Anna! :)

  2. What do you think about the big Vitamin D push here in Southeast? Probably every time I see my doctor she asks if I'm taking any and my mother has even gone so far as to buy me a bottle and deliver it to my door. I guess since we don't get that much sun it's supposed to be a serious issue for folks up here.