Is Diet Enough? The Nitty Gritty of Supplementation.
By Sarah Axtell, ND • February 14, 2012
As a naturopathic doctor, I am often asked, “Do I (or my kids) need to take nutritional supplements?”
It all depends on how adequate your diet is. If you eat a diet rich in colorful, organic fruits and vegetables (totaling between 8-9 servings a day), you can likely get away without taking a multi-vitamin. After all, whole foods contain enzymes and cofactors that aid in the breakdown and absorption of the vitamins and minerals contained in the food. This trumps the power of a multi-vitamin with isolated and often synthetic forms of the nutrients any day!
Declining Nutritional Content of Food
I mentioned organic fruits and vegetables in the previous paragraph because it is well-known that organic produce is more nutritive. A 2007 study out of Newcastle University in the UK reported that organic produce boasted up to 40 percent higher levels of some nutrients (including Vitamin C, zinc, and iron) than its conventional counterparts.
The USDA found in 2006 that the nutritional content of vitamins and minerals in food has declined significantly in the past 50 years. Fertilizers and breeding plants for higher yields have reduced the nutritional content of food.
I always recommend eating organic to get the most bang for you buck- especially the “dirty dozen:” apples, celery, strawberries, peaches, spinach, nectarines, grapes, bell peppers, potatoes, blueberries, lettuce and kale.
An Overfed, Undernourished Nation
While most people in America may not be emaciated when they look in the mirror (in fact- it is quite the opposite with two-thirds of Americans now considered overweight or obese), the internal body is starving for essential nutrients. Its here in America where french fries and ketchup account for the majority of people’s vegetable intake. The SAD (Standard American Diet) is composed of packaged and processed food, devoid of true nourishment.
Although we are well-fed, our bodies are reacting negatively to the so-called “foods” that we put in our mouths. This can then manifest into chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and auto-immune diseases. Nutritional status plays a major role in both the development and treatment of chronic disease. See a naturopathic doctor if you have a specific health condition, in which case he or she can recommend appropriate supplements.
Here are some recommendations for the general public to maintain wellness:
The Case for Probiotics
Not all bugs are created equally. Probiotics are the “good guys.” Lactobacillus and Bifido bacterium are examples of probiotics that work in your favor.
“Can’t I get these by eating yogurt?” you ask. Yes, probiotics are found in fermented foods, such as yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut, but the amount in these foods can be negligable, especially comercially prepared yogurts. Homemade yogurt may suffice, but your morning cup of Dannon does not cut it because all of those bacteria are likely dead.
Supplementing with probiotics is especially important if you have taken antibiotics. It is equally important if you wish to maintain a high level of wellness through a healthy immune system and GI tract. About 70% of your immune system is based in your gut, so a healthy gut equals a health you!
Fish Oil is a Must
Fish oil is high in omega-3 fatty acids. These essential fatty acids are anti-inflammatory. Inflammation is the root cause of most chronic conditions, including heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and arthritis. In addition to combating inflammation, fish oil also supports the immune system.
For more info, on the importance of omega-3 fatty acids, see my previous post on Inflammation Busters: Fish Oil vs. Flax Seeds.
Vitamin D: The Wonder Vitamin
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin (often considered a hormone) present in very few foods. Your body actually produces this vitamin from UV rays of the fun. The benfits are endless, ranging from cancer prevention to prevention of autoimmune diseases to supporting a healthy immune system. Fifteen minutes of sun exposure per day is ideal.
However, underexposure to sunlight (due to your geographical location or to the use of sunscreen) makes vitamin D a frequent deficiency. I test patients for Vitamin D levels regularly and rarely see adquate levels. Blood testing should be done before supplementation to achieve an accurate dose.
The average dietary fiber intake of the US population is 11 grams/day. I recommend that patients get 35-40 grams per day for optimal health. That means that Americans are getting WAY less than the recommended amount.
To supplement your diet with added fiber, you can add 2-4 tbsps of ground flax seed to your foods. Flax seed is a great because it is a rich in fiber AND essential fatty acids. Here is more info, on the benefits of flax. Be sure to store your flax seed in the freezer to prevent it from going rancid. You can add it to smoothies, salads, oatmeal, yogurt, and cereal.
When you consume the fiber your body needs, you’ll be lowering your risk of diabetes, heart disease, diverticulitis, and constipation. Not bad, eh?!
Determining Your Individual Need for Supplements
As stated above, most everyone needs a probiotic, fish oil, vitamin D and added fiber to maintain wellness.
With that said, you may require added nutrients if your diet is not enough; if you have a particular health condition; or if you take a medication that causes nutrient deficiencies. For example, women of child-bearing years (20s and 30s) should be taking a prenatal supplement. Prenatals contain adequate levels of folic acid, a nutrient known to prevent birth defects. Even if you are not wanting to get pregnant and are on the birth control pill, you should be supplementing with folic acid and B vitamins due to the common deficiencies associated with the pill. Other common medications that are associated with nutrient deficiencies are acid-blockers for heartburn. These medications can lead to a magnesium deficiency. In addition, vegans and vegetarians should always supplement with a B complex.
An effective way to track your diet to see if it is adequate is to do a diet diary in which you track everything you eat for a week. You can then bring this to a naturopathic doctor for complete analysis. A naturopathic doctor can also look at your medication history and recommend any appropriate supplements you may need to counter-act any deficiencies.
Supplement Quality: Costco vs. Professional-grade
The supplements found at big-box stores like Costco, Walgreens, Target, and even local health food stores differ from professional-grade supplements in terms of quality, effectiveness, bio-availability, and purity of raw materials. For example, many of the supplements found at your drug store contain the cheapest, synthetic form of vitamins and minerals and you are not able to absorb any of the nutrients.
Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) ensure product consistency and quality. All supplements found at Lakeside Natural Medicine comply with GMPs. This ensures that there are no artificial binders, fillers, colors or additives and that they contain nutrients that your body can actually utilize.
I caution patients against self-prescribing vitamins and minerals. Consult with a nutrition-oriented physician, such as a naturopathic doctor, for recommendations and dosing.
It is important to remember that vitamin and mineral supplements are not a replacement for a healthy diet. Your body’s nutritional needs should ideally be met by eating a variety of healthy, colorful foods.
Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health practitioners with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.