In 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, but…I don’t always have time to eat right. The vitamins and minerals in our food have been stripped due to overproduction 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:
The body is in a constant state of maintaining homeostasis (balance). It is designed to identify, extract, and absorb the bioavailable nutrients in food.
To simplify an extremely complex process, when we consume the macronutrients in food: carbohydrates, protein, and fat, each is assigned a corresponding enzyme: Amylase for carbohydrates, protease for protein, and lipase for fats/lipids. 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 bloodstream. 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 the non-soluble fiber in fruits and vegetables. Animals have this enzyme, which is why they can eat and digest grass. Because we lack this enzyme, fibrous bulk from plant-based food is passed directly through the lower intestine. Along the way, it carries unwanted fats, heavy metals, and toxins to be eliminated while pulling double duty as a passive diffuser for absorbing the bioavailable nutrients. Nature packages food to work 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 bioavailable nutrients from food and supplements line up, competition ensues 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 tiny percentage make it past the checkpoint. 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:
- What is the health claim promoted about the supplement?
- What questions and points are made about the supplement?
- What questions are NOT being asked? Such as known side effects
- 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 offer 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)
For unbiased research about supplements, Consumer Labs offers published reports to help guide the consumer.
Eating a diet containing whole, nutrient-dense plant-based foods high in fiber, is still the best insurance policy for optimal health and wellness.