Hey, Are Those Supplements Doing What You Think They Are?

October 14, 2023 8 mins to read
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In this article I want to take a look at the role supplements play in our diet and just how effective is supplementation Vs eating healthy food. Now in short yes supplements can raise blood levels of vitamins, proven by lab tests (which I’ve done many times). But can and should supplements replace diet? If not, what is the balance between healthy eating and supplementing? It’s more of a dance than a duel!

Looking at the $$$

To put this in context BigPharma makes trillions annually on pharmaceutical drugs around the world, with hundreds of billions in the US alone. Comparatively, the supplement industry rakes in around $40 billion in the just U.S, it’s evident that many of us are searching for that magic pill or powder, hoping it might be the shortcut to ripped muscles and razor-sharp memory. I get it; who wouldn’t want an edge? I think this is where Americans (and Canadians), try using supplements in place of healthy eating, which should never be the case.

What’s In Our Food?

Science still doesn’t understand everything that is in food, nor in the complex interactions that occur when we consume them along with other foods…This is one reason nutrition studies aren’t as conclusive as people think – there are to many complex variables, more then could possible be tracked (with current technology as of 2023). And Disease progression can take decades…studies just aren’t that long, nor would it be practical to make them that long, especially if using studies as a vetting process to approve certain supplements or herbs. Studies work for meds because there are less compounds and less variable interactions, and results are often on a much shorter timeline.

Western Medicines “Quick Fix” Pill Mentality

Western medicine and it’s heavy pharmaceutical bias…has largely led people to have a “quick fix pill” mentality, that is at odds with our biology, and how we function physiologically. As an Integrative nutrition student in college, I can tell you that results with nutrition usually (not always, but most of the time), take a few weeks-months before results become noticeable. In this fast paced society, it seems, most people want a quick fix, but good health is a lifestyle, not a a destination…it’s a marathon, not a race.

Modern Agriculture & Soil Nutrient Depletion

Our current dietary guidelines have sent many of us chasing the ‘clean eating’ trend, but that approach falls short. I talk allot about how modern agriculture, with it’s monocropping, pesticide/herbicide use & poor fertilizing (inadequate soil nutrient replacement), has according to some studies caused our food to be 20%-40% less nutrient dense, than it was when our grandparents ate it. Remember plants get their nutrients from the soil, so if the soil is depleted, the plant isn’t going to be able to uptake the same nutrient density into it’s tissues, resulting in a nutritionally depleted food.

That is why I firmly believe supplementation is mandatory, but that doesn’t mean we should replay food with supplements….Again this goes into how science doesn’t yet fully understand what’s in our food – there are biochemical reactions going on that are beyond what science can currently compute. Therefore there are also macronutrients, phytonutrients and other compounds that our bodies need from food for optimal health, at least with our current level of technology – but who knows what the future holds.

Nutrient Density & Power-Packing Your Plate

I think of food essentially as a carrier or vessel for nutrients that our bodies need – macronutrients like protein, fats & carbs – as well as micronutrients like vitamin C, B-Vitamins, Iron, etc. That’s why as an Integrative nutrition student, my focus is on nutrient density – trying to ingest a balanced plate of nutrient dense foods – rather than just “clean eating” or following some trendy diet. For example lettuce while low in calories has very little nutrition Vs. grass-fed beef or eggs which are like mother natures multi-vitamin/mineral powerhouse, while also being highly digestible.

Foods in a Capsule

This is also why I lean towards certain nutrient dense foods, taken as a supplement to whatever your diet might be (with any healthy additions you can make per my or another nutrition professionals expert advice). Some examples of this are: moringa, spirulina, irish sea moss & burdock root – all extremely nutrient dense foods, many of which can be taken in capsules, tea or powder form to add to a drink or smoothie to superpower the nutrient density of your meal.

Plant (Vegan) Vs Animal (Omnivore) Based

Now if you know my story, I got very sick from a 10 year+ vegan diet. There’s two facts I’m going to point out, and you can debate them all you’d like, but here they are 1) Plant based sources of protein are less bio-avilable (absorbed) Vs. Animal Based and 2) Plant based sources are less nutrient dense than animal based sources. These are two huge factors in why a vegan diet is especially hard to do well. And yes there are exceptions of people that have lived a long healthy life on a vegan diet, but they are exactly that exceptions, and not the rule. I’m not saying fruits & veggies should be ignored, on the contrary they are essential to a balanced meal. I’m more saying animal based is vital to optimal health…and that it’s more about balance.

How You Cook & Eat Matters

Cooking changes the nutrient content of food, yes you heard me correctly. Generally higher heat can damage heat sensitive vitamins and denature proteins. Also if you boil something water soluble vitamins can leach into the water and if you just toss that out then allot of that plants nutrition goes to waste. On the other hand heating some plants (veggies especially), is important to remove or reduce toxic antinutrients e.g. lectins in beans – a few uncooked kidney beans could poison or even kill someone – antinutrients can also interfere with absorption of other nutrients. Also cooking meat is important to kill dangerous bacteria.

There are a few best practices:

  • Steaming is often better than boiling, as it helps retain more of the nutrient content
  • Lower heat for longer helps reduce damage to heat sensitive vitamins and proteins. Just get a thermometer to test and make sure meats are cooked to the correct temperature.
  • Know what foods are dangerous, toxic or have more anti-nutrients, and cook them thoroughly to make nutrients easier for your body to absorb
  • Using oils with a higher smoke point (like avocado) when cooking vs lower smoke point when seasoning to prevent things like cancer causing aka carcinogens
  • Bake instead of fry esp. your meats and try not to cook meat until it is blackened which becomes again carcinogenic (cancer causing)
  • For some things like seeds and nuts: soaking, sprouting or souring can help reduce some anti-nutrients, enhance the nutrient profile of foods and make nutrients more bio-available (absorbable) to our bodies.

The Organic Debate

Allot of people are unsure about just how important organic is. Some industry insiders say that often non-organic is simply re-labeled organic so they can charge more, and this can certainly be true, but it also depends on a few things:

  • What are the organic laws in the country & which organic certifications does it have
  • What country was it produced e.g. some countries like China don’t really have the best organic laws (if any), so organics coming from there aren’t exactly trustworthy
  • Certain countries have better laws around food such as GMOs or certain pesticides and herbicides being banned. For example GMOs are largely banned in mexico and places in Europe have banned many toxic pesticides. So one trick is to look for foods from countries where you know food protection laws are stronger than say in USA.
  • Where the food is produced, and more specifically the soil quality plays a huge role in the nutritional value of food.

So get to know your Geography and food laws…then when you go to the grocery store you can save a few bucks by finding non-organic food from countries where despite the lack of certification, it is likely to have much lower levels of pesticides and is probably GMO-free.

So my point in all this is that supplements are essential to our nutrient poor diet, but is not a replacement for healthy whole foods. There is also a plethora of unregulated supplements out there, so it’s crucial to be savvy – As a rule of thumb Look for clarity in ingredient lists, check dosages, and avoid fillers – Know brands or look for third party testing where possible. One of the few brands I trust (that isn’t owned by bigpharma) is Youngevity by Dr. Wallach.

Just remember that being healthy is a lifestyle, not a pill. Whole foods and supplements are like a tag team, that works best together. As always – Stay Healthy!

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