Food versus supplements?
vitamins and supplements background - pills, capsules and tablets on a white art canvas, healthcare, self care and wellbeing concept

Are we able to get everything we need from the food we eat, or do we need to supplement on a daily basis?

In the ideal world we should be eating nutrient-dense foods that provide us with all the goodness that we need. If the gut is working well, we should be able to digest our food and absorb the nutrients that food provides. There are numerous studies that suggest most nutrients are better absorbed and used by the body when eaten as a food, rather than when taking supplements. 

Does this mean that you should never take supplements? 

That would be too black and white. There are many factors to consider. I believe that supplements do have their place when used appropriately and that they can be beneficial for many of us.

Some people may need to use them short term and others for longer periods of time depending on their circumstances. Times when you might need supplements are when you have a health condition, have nutritional deficiencies, have long-term gut issues, are stressed or are at higher risk of disease because of poor lifestyle choices or a genetic disposition. 

I would like to digress for a moment because I believe this is something you should know and consider within your own lives. 

I often hear, it’s in my DNA. Remember, you may inherit your genes, but you can still change them. Just because you have a tendency for diabetes, it doesn’t mean that those genes are going to express. You have a say in this! Choosing the same lifestyle and bad habits as your forebears means that it is likely that you are going to end up in the same boat. What I find fascinating is that we can prevent our ‘bad’ genes from switching on. We do this through making good lifestyle choices. 

Regarding supplements, one must understand that not all supplements are created equal. 

It’s important to consider where products are sourced from and whether they are of good quality and are going to be well absorbed. Some supplements have been found to be contaminated by heavy metals, others haven’t contained the full dosage of the ingredient indicated on their packaging. Some companies opt for the cheapest ingredients and include unnecessary additives. 

We also need to be aware of the marketing hype out there. Like any industry, supplement and drug manufacturers are there to support people’s health but also to make money. Companies have good marketing departments and tap into our desire to be healthy and to find the ‘silver bullet’ for health and longevity. 

Clever marketing can make us believe that a particular supplement or food is needed and is good for us. This isn’t necessarily always true. Many drug companies now sell supplements too. 

Recently I reviewed a drug company’s multivitamin brand that is marketed as the leading multivitamin in the world. This type of marketing may prompt you to purchase it. 

What I found is that it contains the mineral zinc oxide, which is one of the cheapest forms of zinc and has been shown to be minimally absorbed by some individuals. Other ingredients included were maltodextrin, a cheap filler that is made from genetically modified (GMO) corn. Talc and yellow colourant were also included, both are currently deemed to be safe but have question marks around long-term use. 

I’m not a fan of long-term multivitamin usage, unless a person is nutritionally depleted or is not eating a well-balanced diet. Our liver has to process supplements the same way it would medications. 

Another well-known drug company brand markets a prenatal and pregnancy supplement, based on a ‘Scientific Formula’, with a high number of additives in it. Why is it so widely used? You guessed it, good marketing!

This is such an important time in a young woman’s life. Ideally, she should be eating clean, making good lifestyle choices and having the least number of additives in her food or supplements. The supplement that I prefer for prenatal and pregnancy is one that is GMO free and doesn’t contain artificial colours, flavours or preservatives. Wherever possible I avoid supplements with unnecessary additives, for my personal use and for my clients. 

When it comes to the nutrient density of food, one needs to consider the quality of New Zealand’s soils, which are declining along with those of the rest of the world. In conventional farming only nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus are put back into the soil. Many of the minerals we require for good health are not repleted back into the soil. If they aren’t in our soil, we won’t be getting them from our food. 

This is somewhat of a conundrum, since ideally, we would want to get most of our nutrients from our food. 

I encourage my clients to grow their own vegetables and choose organic where possible. It’s also important to make good food choices to maximise nutrient intake. Many of us eat far too few vegetables and tend to eat poorly when we are unwell or stressed. This is the time when you need nutrient dense food the most. 

It’s also wise to not supplement unless you need it. Remember, supplements are meant to supplement, not replace nourishing foods. 

Not all doctors are knowledgeable about dietary supplements. When considering a supplement, do your research and get good advice from a registered nutritionist or other qualified healthcare practitioner who is knowledgeable in this area. They will be able to assess whether you have nutritional deficiencies or need support in other areas. They will be able to provide you with research-based products that have minimal additives and contain a full therapeutic dosage. 

In my practice, I consider what medications my clients are taking, since researchers now better understand that high doses of certain drugs such as acid, cholesterol and glucose lowering medications can cause deficiencies because of how they impact the production and absorption of some nutrients. 

Blood tests can be useful in determining other nutritional deficiencies, such as potassium, iron or B12. If you are on a proton pump inhibitor (PPI), B12 and magnesium testing may be warranted. PPIs reduce the amount of acid in the stomach, which decreases protein digestion and B12 release. Other associated deficiencies are zinc, vitamin C, calcium, iron, and folic acid. 

Another fact that you need to consider. People can have side effects from supplements. Too much vitamin A can cause liver toxicity. Too much calcium, vitamin D or vitamin C can cause kidney stones, and excess B6 can cause sensory peripheral neuropathy (weakness and numbness usually in the hands and feet). I too have been caught up in taking too many supplements to optimise my health and have experienced side effects. As such, I’m very careful about what supplements I would use or recommend. 

In summary, food is always best, but it depends on what your health needs are. You may need to take a good quality supplement in the short or long-term to support your quality of life. I would encourage you to get professional advice on what supplements would best suit you. This way you can also avoid GMO products. artificial colourants, preservatives, fillers and sweeteners where possible. 

Try not to be caught up in ‘silver bullet’ solutions and all the good marketing out there. 

Instead, choose to eat nourishing foods that are going to support your health now and in your twilight years. Go for that walk every day, increase your vegetable and fruit intake and maintain a healthy weight. Cut down on all those foods that you know deep down aren’t your best friends.

Royston Hospital is pleased to sponsor robust examination of health issues in Hawke’s Bay. This reporting is prepared by BayBuzz. Any editorial views expressed are those of the BayBuzz team.

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1 Comment

  1. I absolutely agree with Hazel’s sensible comments.
    there is one thing I want to add, in NZ we are pretty much missing selenium except in imported food from overseas, night/leg cramps seem to be very common, they usually disappear with 3 Brazil nuts/day or a selenium supplement.

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