Monday, September 6, 2010

Investigative Health Report: Dietary Supplements

For the most part, I am not a big fan of dietary supplements. There are a few documented cases in which they are useful if not necessary when targeted at specific deficiencies and/or conditions, but too often people use them as a fall-back when they should be honing in on their diet, and getting all their nutrient requirements from real, whole food.

All too often, people expect miracles from many of these things, and they just don't work that way. The supplement world seems to be getting more and more complex too, all promising something or other in regards to your health. You've got vitamins & minerals, herbs, amino acids, isolated derivativeness of obscure compounds in different foods, and of course the endless world of body building and athletic performance supplements; protein, creatine, ZMA etc. It's almost to the point of absurdity if you ask me, especially to think that these things should work so efficaciously. While I am not saying there is no such thing as wise supplementation, there are a few reasons I am weary of blindly diving into the world of supplements.

For one, it is a practically unregulated industry, and you never really know what they're putting into them. While I don't always side with the FDA, their total absence in this industry seems more worrisome to me in this case. There have been numerous studies and reports that have surfaced detailing different companies' products showing contamination with heavy metals and/or other poisons¹². And this is even aside from the additives that are often standard ingredients, like stearic acid, magnesium stearate, even GMO-soy ingredients, which are questionable at best. There of course are a few trust-able companies, and perhaps something like a good multivitamin from such a company would be an example of wise supplementation.

ConsumerLab is an organization that is dedicated to evaluating different supplement companies and their products, testing that they both contain everything that is listed on the package, as well as making sure they don't contain anything that isn't listed- such as mercury or arsenic. You have to pay a fee to access their reports, but it's free to click around the site and see their fairly shocking claims that large percentages of supplements don't live up to their claims.

The other reason I don't like supplements, is that I feel on a certain level it's not good for your body. It seems the best strategies for building health and preventing disease have one major thing in common. This is that we must do what is "natural" for us, which doesn't conflict with our innate healing mechanisms, biological rhythms etc. I feel that taking supplements interferes with this, and it is in no way natural to be getting large amounts of isolated (synthetic?) nutrients. This is especially the case if we are talking about supplements such as "dong quai" or whatever i.e. those obscure herbs/medicinals.

In a sense, I feel that there are similar issues here as with taking "actual" drugs- addressing symptoms and problems that are extraneous to the actual root causes of ill-health. The aim should be working to build overall health, and provide the optimal environment for the body to heal itself. In more cases than not this would likely be better attained by removing things from people's diets and lifestyle habits e.g. analyzing what it is they are doing that they shouldn't be doing, rather than what supplements they aren't taking. 

"You have horrible chronic inflammation? Here take this supplement... but it's ok to eat that sugary, glutinous piece of pie in moderation." 

Hmmm, sounds all too much like the conventional drug-prescribing mentality...

Lastly, the idea of taking supplements vs. whole foods is just silly. The compounds in multivitamins are just the items we have happened to identify and explain the mode of action. There are potentially thousands of other compounds, vitamins, co-factors, etc that we have yet to identify in foods that all work synergistically, contained in the natural package that is any fruit, vegetable, steak what have you. These are likely all essential and contributive to human nutrition, and to remove any one part might make the entire structure unsturdy.

There are a few companies that offer "whole-food" vitamins and minerals, in which all of these substances supposedly stay intact in their unique combinations. Garden of Life's "Raw" line of vitamins is a good example of this.

Here is what you really should do. Any nutritionist would have you do something along these lines. For a few days, write down EVERYTHING you eat. Then use a website such as FitDay or The Daily Plate, and enter all of those things in there. This will give you an excellent, detailed picture of what your diet is like in terms of nutrient density. You can then use something like Nutrition Data's nutrient search tool to look up foods that are higher in any of the vitamins and minerals you may be lacking. Look for the foods that are appealing to you, and start to add some of them to your diet. This is also a great opportunity to look at what you are eating in terms of macronutrient ratios; e.g. how many carbs, protein, different types of fats you are eating. I urge you to explore Nutrition Data- educate yourself on net-inflammation loads and the other various tools they provide on the site. 

If you really want a back-up plan, go with a whole-food multivitamin from a reputable company. Fish oil is another supplement that has very substantial benefits (though once again ideally you'd just eat more fish). But don't think you can continue eating tons of ice cream, bread, pasta, donuts what have you, and a B complex vitamin is going to suddenly propel you into perfect health. Obviously.

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