PillIn an earlier post, I addressed the question: Should I take supplements…? It appears to be a loaded question that requires more than just an anecdotal answer. And as I mentioned, taking supplements is a personal choice and personally, I prefer to get them through food. The counter argument is that yes, butI don’t always have time to eat right, and the vitamins and minerals in our food have been stripped due to over production and aggressive farming practices.  These are all valid reasons for concern. But supplements are not an insurance policy nor do they work in conjunction with the body to effectively deliver the targeted nutrient, and here is why:

fresh-vegetablesThe body is in a constant state of maintaining homeostasis (balance). It is designed to identify, extract and absorb the bioavailable nutrients in food, and this is how it works: To simplify an extremely complex process, when we consume the macronutrients in food: carbohydrates, protein, and fat, each of them is assigned a corresponding enzyme: Amylase for carbohydrates, protease for protein, and lipase for fats/lipids. Think of them as ambassadors to the UN of our body. They meet and greet the food in the mouth and begin breaking it down into smaller components to prepare it for a tour through the digestive tract. As it travels through the larger intestine into the lower intestine, segments are weeded out for distribution and at the same time nutrients are absorbed into the blood stream. And here is where the body is truly ingenious and why it is so important to maintain a whole foods plant-based diet high in fiber. The one enzyme the human body lacks in this process is cellulase. Cellulase breaks down non-soluble fiber in fruits and vegetables. Animals have this enzyme which is why they can eat and digest grass. Because we lack the enzyme, fibrous bulk from plant-based food is passed directly through the lower intestine and along the way carries unwanted fats, heavy metals, and toxins with it to be eliminated, while pulling double duty as a passive diffuser for the body to absorb the bioavailabe nutrients. Nature packages food to work in concert synergistically with the body whereas supplements, which are synthesized chemicals and are not food, can have a one note effect with adverse consequences.

Here is how the body processes supplements: Depending on the manufacturer’s use of wax coatings, binders, fillers, cornstarch, and even sugar, these substances can impede the digestive process and sequential absorption of the vitamin/mineral. The absorption process is a kind of a transit system, similar to a bus or subway. As bioavailble nutrients from food and supplements line up, competition ensures for a seat on the bus. And more often supplements can cancel out the very nutrients they were meant to enhance and everyone misses the bus or, at best, only a minute percentage make it pass the check point. The rest ends up as expensive urine or, worse, disrupts the body’s delicate balance.

If one feels strongly about taking supplements then I suggest doing some research. Apply critical thinking when searching the internet. There are far too many health websites out there pitching products and posing as experts in the field that can mislead the consumer. Ask critical questions:

  1. What is the health claim promoted about the supplement?
  2. What questions and points are made about the supplement?
  3. What questions are NOT being asked? Such as known side effects
  4. Is there reputable, concrete evidence behind the health claim? Consider the following:
  • Is original research cited?
  • Is the evidence cited opinion or peer-reviewed research? Be wary of reports that only contain testimonials. PubMed is a resource database of published peer-reviewed medical studies that offers more in depth research on a particular subject. Here’s an example of a peer-reviewed study published: Synthetic or Food Derived Vitamin C: Are They Equally Bioavailable? (see conclusion)

5.Was the research funded by industry?

Another term for dietary supplements is nutraceuticals, coined in 1989 by Dr, Stephen DeFelice to define a new breed of pharmaceutical grade supplements that refers to any substance that is a part of a food which includes but is not limited to: dietary supplements, isolated nutrients, genetically engineered designer foods, and herbal products for the treatment and prevention of illness as well as the bolstered claim for anti-aging. As more and more people began looking for natural alternatives to pharma drugs, nutraceuticals were eagerly embraced under the auspice of being just as good as pharmaceuticals without the side effects. However, a case in point (see abstract) outlines that nutraceuticals and supplements aren’t without side effects. In addition, the raw materials sourced in producing them are imported, and therefore have no quality control as regulated by the FDA for pharmaceuticals. Many of the dietary supplements on the market today are an extension of the pharmaceutical industry using granola front names and rainbow labels to pitch their products. The pharmaceutical industry is a trillion-dollar business, and the dietary supplement market rakes in a cool multi-billion dollars a year. And a vast percentage of these companies, like Big Pharma, employ third-party research labs to give their products favorable reviews to support their claims. To get an insider’s view, back link the information to its original source to see whose trying to get in your wallet.

6. Are the conclusions well-reasoned and warranted by the evidence? 

Too often websites are cloaked with cameo endorsements by doctors and scientists bolstering their product brand, or unfounded personal assertions, that the consumer actively seeking to better their health and wellness is left confused or, worse, compromises their health further and buys into the hype. And although dietary supplements are considered a pseudoscience, for unbiased research about the quality of supplements you’re investigating, Consumer Labs is an orgainization actively engaged in independent testing that offers published reports to help guide the consumer.

What’s important to take away in reading this post is that eating a diet containing whole, nutrient dense plant-based foods high in fiber, is still the best insurance policy for optimal health and wellness. Here’s my daily vitamin/mineral supplement: Electrolyte Green