“Do you believe in supplements?” It’s a question often asked as if taking vitamins were based on some kind of blind faith that they will actually provide some benefit or serve some useful purpose. Thankfully supplementation, as a progressive and proactive approach to healthcare, is not based on blind faith, but on a growing body of science that is finally taking its place along side other health sciences. What I do believe is that more and more people are increasingly interested in nutrition as a means of improving their lives and preventing illness. They want to live longer, healthier lives, look better, feel better, handle stress better, have more energy, and minimize their risk of everything from the common cold to cancer.
As Americans seek to attain longer, healthier lives, and to reduce chronic disease, the evidence to encourage the use of supplements grows stronger. A recent study commissioned by the Council for Responsible Nutrition estimated that 8.7 billion dollars could be saved on four major diseases if Americans consumed optimum levels of the antioxidants vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene. Diets optimal in these nutrients have been shown to reduce costs associated with breast, lung and stomach cancer, and dramatically reduce the incidence and severity of cataracts. Additionally, the council evaluated ten years of the best scientific studies related to the benefits of vitamin and mineral supplements and concluded that the long term benefits could reduce neural tube birth defects by 70 percent, sick days could be reduced by 50 percent, and health-care costs by delaying cardiovascular disease, stroke and hip fracture could be reduced by a staggering $89 billion per year.
And while perhaps some of these benefits could be derived from diet, most individuals do not eat the five servings of fruit and vegetables as recommended by the National Cancer Institute. In fact, it has been estimated that less than 10 percent of Americans actually consume two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables per day and that over half eat no vegetables at all. As for those of us who do practice better eating habits, and do include those daily five, we are still being left nutritionally void of many of the nutrients we believe we are consuming.
Food is not what it used to be. Today our food is both less (nutritionally speaking) and more (chemically contaminated) than in the past. On an average our food travels 1300 miles from farm to market shelf. Nearly every state buys 90 percent of its food from out of the state. Through irradiation, our food is bombarded with the equivalent of 233 billion chest x-rays to kill bacteria and extend shelf life. Thirty percent of American dairy animals are fed genetically engineered bovine growth hormone.
Many modern agricultural practices adversely affect the quality of our food and its nutrient levels. Many foods are grown using methods designed to increase quantity or to facilitate transportation and storage, and these methods often are detrimental to the nutritional value of the food. Modern farming methods also often degrade the quality of the soil in which our food is grown leaving it very low in minerals, and with added pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals that are added during the growing process. High nitrogen fertilizers accelerate growth so fruits and vegetables are marketable size, long before they have had time to absorb minerals or synthesize nutrients. Often foods are not allowed to develop to their full level of vitamins and minerals, which increases greatly during later stages of growth. Fruits and vegetables are often picked before they are ripe, or allowed to ripen during transit to the market, which greatly diminishes their vitamin or mineral content. Transportation and storage can also adversely affect nutrient content of fruits and vegetables as they can start to lose significant amounts of vitamins as soon as they are cut or harvested. Transit time alone can provide for produce that has been severely depleted of its nutrient content. Produce can lose as much as 50 percent of its carotene (pro-vitamin A) and 60 percent of its vitamin C within as little as three days of being harvested. Additionally, certain fruits and vegetables can lose significant amounts of vitamins when they are stored at cold temperatures or even at room temperatures. Green vegetables lose all of their vitamin C after just a few days of being stored at room temperature. Drying, as well as exposure to light and oxygen also diminishes nutrient content. And while some may argue that many foods have been grown with the addition of certain nutrients, the nutrients optimum for plant growth are not necessarily optimum for our consumption. Chemical fertilizers that facilitate plant growth do not replace the minerals necessary for human nutrition. Even organic fruits and vegetables, while they are free of pesticides, are still harvested and transported using these same practices, unfortunately also rendering them nutritionally insufficient. And unfortunately, produce is not the only food group fallen victim to modern processing and refining practices. Whole grains have suffered probably the greatest injustice inflicted by the food industry. When wheat is processed in to white flour, up to 40 percent of the vitamin C, 65-85 percent of the various B Vitamins, 59 percent of the magnesium and 72 percent of the zinc are lost along with significant amounts of protein and fiber. All in all more than 26 essential nutrients are removed. Even our meat, fish and dairy products do not contain the nutrients we assume they do.
Supplements are a way for us to make up for nutrients lost in our food as a result of growing, shipping storing and processing practices. Incorporating a good multivitamin into your daily routine is a good start to optimizing your nutrition plan and one of the simplest ways to begin a supplement program. But even making good supplement choices can be difficult and often confusing. The following are a few tips to help assure you get the most out of your choice.
- Always buy well-known, reputable brands – this is more easily assured when you buy from reputable nutrition stores with a knowledgeable staff, willing to assist you in making the best choice for you.
- Always choose food based, rather than chemical based vitamins. Food based vitamins are more bioavailable, contain nutrients as they occur in food, and are not made from by- products of the petrochemical (or gasoline) refining process.
- Choose a vitamin that is taken in divided doses throughout the day rather than “one a day”. While it may seem a little less convenient to take three pills as opposed to one, it is necessary to replace certain nutrients throughout the day. Many vitamins are out of your system, or completely used up within hours of ingestion. It doesn’t really make much sense to have antioxidant protection for the first three hours of your day, and not the next twenty-one. Time released multivitamins also leave you lacking in nutrients, as vitamins and minerals are absorbed through different points in your digestive system, and often the timed release is “releasing” past its point of absorption.
- Avoid multivitamins that only offer 100% of the RDA. The recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) were established more than fifty years ago as the minimum amount of nutrients needed to prevent deficiency diseases in most healthy people. These amounts do not take into account environmental changes and our constant bombardment with pollutants, or individual needs based on age, stress or dietary considerations.
A good example of this would be with Vitamin C. The daily intake of Vitamin C required to prevent Scurvy is between 30-50mg. That is approximately the amount found in one orange, lime, or lemon. Years ago, before much was known about the many other biochemical roles of Vitamin C, the RDA for ascorbic acid was set at 60mg, the minimal amount to prevent Scurvy. Despite recommendations by the Food & Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences and the fact that over several decades many scientific studies have shown that optimum health requires many times more than 60mg of Vitamin C, the official RDA remains at 60mg. Considering just one cigarette destroys approximately 500 mg. of Vitamin C (this includes second hand smoke), 60mg is well below the minimum necessary for those focusing on optimizing their health.
But remember, supplements are just that – supplements. They should be taken in addition to, not in place of, an intelligent diet. Supplements will not make up for a diet high in refined carbohydrates and sugars and saturated fats, low in fiber, or a sedentary lifestyle.
As for the discouraging news about our produce, a visit to your local farmers’ market is well worth the trip. This is one of the best ways to get vine ripened, fresh picked produce, that is more colorful, flavorful, and certainly more nutritious.