Is your diet enough? The answer to this question is not a simple one. Our bodies cannot function without the proper balance of vitamins, minerals, protein, fats and carbohydrates. In theory, our diet should provide us with sufficient amounts to prevent disease and keep us healthy. But what I can tell you for sure is that food today is not how it used to be.
Gone are the days where fresh fruits/veggies and homemade meals are a daily occurrence in the average North American diet. Whether it is boxed, canned, catered, take-out, frozen, you name it; as long as it is fast, we eat it. Because of this fast-paced lifestyle, we have lost our instinct for selecting foods that provide us with the proper nutrients for energy.
Instead, the chemical systems in our body that are supposed to tell us when we are full, are tricked by ingredients in foods like artificial sweeteners (ie. sucralose, aspartame), sugar (i.e. fructose, high-fructose corn syrup), trans-fats, added flavours like MSG, etc.. These foods desensitize our taste buds and reward centres in our brain causing us to crave more and more of these "chemicals" in order to feel the same pleasure and satisfaction as the last time they were consumed. Unfortunately, we never achieve complete satisfaction and are left continuously hungry for more.
You might hear someone say: "I feel like a bottomless pit". We eat larger portions and feel less full since these foods are nutrient depleted leaving us hungry, tired and constantly in search of vitamins and minerals to provide us with the fuel we need to function efficiently.
Consider the following if you want to feel full and energized from your food:
- Eat fresh whole foods with a large emphasis on vegetables
- Avoid trans-fats and take-out food
- Avoid pre-packaged and canned foods
- Avoid artificial colouring, flavours (i.e. MSG) and sweeteners
- Avoid preservatives (i.e.sodium benzoate, sodium nitrites).
If you are the type of person who already makes a conscious effort to incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables and organic meats in your meals, you might say that you don't need supplements.
Again, I wish the answer were that simple. Many of the Canadian soils today are not mineral rich as they used to be as a result of many factors, including crop removal, leaching, extremes of soil pH, etc.. In fact, the United States was warned during a Congressional investigation into U.S. farming practices in 1936 that their millions of acres of soil were insufficient in providing citizens with their essential daily nutrients. Then in 1992, an earth summit report indicated that the worlds farms and soils had dramatically decreased in mineral content, with North America suffering the most and Canada falling at an alarming 85 per cent within the last 100 years.
We can no longer rely solely on food to provide us with what we need. We would have to eat impossible amounts of food to reach our daily requirements. The carrot of today is not the same carrot from 100 years ago.
The challenging thing about this discovery is that our bodies, now more than ever, require even more support from the antioxidants in vitamins and minerals in order to up-regulate our detox pathways, which are heavily bombarded with constant environmental toxins (ie pollution, heavy metals, hormones, medications, pesticides, etc..).
And what about the importation of foods from all over the world? You might not live in the tropics. but you have access to pineapple and coconut amongst a plethora of other fruits, vegetables and other foods that are not a part of your native diet. So how do you know you are getting the right nutrients from these foods? Genetically and culturally your body will be different than someone residing on a different continent, therefore eating the same foods might not be providing you with the nutrients that you need.
What's important to remember about supplements is that we require different ones at different times of our lives. One that often gets mentioned is probiotics. They are not considered a vitamin or mineral, but nonetheless make up our gut flora and is part of a healthy digestive and immune system. Many factors such as frequent antibiotic use, stress, a diet low in fibre, etc. will deplete our natural gut flora. During the time when our foods were not pasteurized, you could easily replenish yourself with fermented foods like yogurt and milk. Today however, they are scarce in these foods. You can find them in kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut and other foods, but you would need to eat large quantities in order to achieve the desired benefit of probiotics.
Fish oil is also a popular supplement and we require a healthy balance of omega 3, 6, and 9. But does everyone need to supplement with it? With research around mercury and other heavy metal contaminants in fish, many are opting to avoid eating it all together. It certainly has many benefits, too many to list here, but this doesn't mean that everyone requires it. For example, someone who has difficulties digesting fats (ie. from gallbladder surgery or fatty liver disease) might not tolerate it very well. There has even been some recent research demonstrating that those who possess a certain variant of the Nitric Oxide Synthase 3 (NOS3) gene may not utilize it effectively, rendering it useless for lowering cholesterol (it's claim to fame).
The important thing to remember is that you really don't know whether you require a supplement without a proper assessment. A healthcare professional can help you to determine what your needs are so that you are not unnecessarily taking a vitamin. There are supplements like iron which are considered life-saving, particularly if you are vegetarian and struggling to keep hemoglobin and ferritin at optimal serum levels. If you are sick, you might consider garlic, which has shown tremendous benefit in combating bacterial infections. And you must be careful with fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin E, A, K and D at high doses because they can accumulate in your body over extended periods of time.
Now if you do decide to purchase a supplement, you should carefully consider the company who manufactures it. If it's too cheap to be true, it probably is. When you look at the price, it has to make sense to cover all the costs to make and advertise the product, but also profitable for the manufacturer, the distributor and the retail store; even when it's on sale. We are all trying to save money, but you have to understand that it will have some bearing on quality. You should be asking yourself, did they source quality ingredients; do they have published scientific studies in credible journals; what tests and quality assurance practices do they have in place; and do they test each batch of products? Usually you can call the company directly, and they would be happy to share this information with you.
An analysis performed by Erin S. Leblanc, the lead author and investigator with the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research in Portland, Oregon, demonstrated variability of Vitamin D potency ranging from nine percent to 140 percent between different brands and between individual capsules in the same bottle. This study was published in JAMA Internal Medicine, 2013 and is just one of many examples of why investigating the brand of supplements you are buying is important.
As you've probably already discovered, there is a lot of confusing information regarding the topic of supplements. It is best to consult with your healthcare provider so that you have a greater understanding of your individual nutrient needs, as well as assistance with maximizing absorption of nutrients from your foods and from your supplements. There is certainly a place for supplements in healthcare, but like anything else, it requires balance and appropriate consideration for your individual self.
Christal Blanchard is a Naturopathic Doctor in Sudbury and Toronto. She has a special focus in women's health, digestive disorders and pain management. Visit www.DrChristalND.com