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Simplifying Supplements

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The trouble, argues Lynne McTaggart, editor of the monthly U.K. health journal What Doctors Don’t Tell You, is that even if you do eat your broccoli, you may not be getting what you need. “Food isn’t as nutritious as it once was,” she says, pointing to research that shows a decrease in nutrient levels in produce compared with what was harvested a few decades ago. In 2007, Brian Halweil, a researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, reviewed several projects that examined nutrient levels in produce. In a report published by the Organic Center of Boulder, Colorado, he concluded that breeding for high yields has diluted the nutritional quality of the plants we eat. According to data collected by government agencies in the U.S. and U.K., modern harvests are lower in many nutrients than those in the 1940s and 1950s, including magnesium, iron, potassium, calcium, riboflavin and vitamin C.

Halweil also highlighted research suggesting that conventional produce grown in poor soils and bathed in synthetic fertilizers may have lower levels of nutrients than that grown with organic techniques. But even organic food has come in for criticism; a report commissioned by the U.K. Food Standards Agency (FSA) found no substantial difference in nutritional content between organic and conventional food, a finding strongly contested by the Organic Center, the U.K. Soil Association and others.

Still, to many nutrition experts, supplements make a lot of sense. “Even people who consistently eat well can benefit from supplementation,” says Weil. “Optimal intakes of key nutrients, in amounts sufficient to enhance health beyond the prevention of deficiency states, can be difficult to obtain through diet alone.”

At least 50 percent of Americans take a supplement, and 35 percent take a multivitamin. Some 4.2 billion dollars was spent on multivitamins alone in 2005, according to the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a trade organization representing the industry.

Vitamins were first discovered in the early 20th century when researchers observed that certain diseases correlate to dietary patterns. In the 1920s and 1930s, scientists discovered links between scurvy and vitamin C, blindness and vitamin A, and rickets and vitamin D. Though these deficiency diseases have been virtually eliminated in the West, through fortification and greater access to a wide variety of nourishing foods, many people in the developing world still suffer from them.

While most Americans don’t suffer from overt deficiencies, Ames argues many of us may be suffering from less obvious shortfalls that contribute to disease.

“There are many diseases that could be a long-term consequence of being deficient in one or more nutrients,” argues McTaggart. “There’s a lot of evidence that vitamins and minerals protect against illness. Jeffrey Blumberg, a nutrition scientist at the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy in Boston, Massachusetts, points out that certain benefits of supplements have been verified. Vitamins A, C and E can help protect against age-related macular degeneration, an eye condition that can lead to blindness, and vitamin E boosts immune response. A combination of vitamin E and selenium looks promising for fending off cancer, he says, and several studies support a potential cancer prevention benefit from vitamin D and calcium. There’s also good research linking omega-3 supplements to reduced risk of heart attack.

Which supplements should we choose? How many should we take? And in what form should we take them? The key to choosing supplements is to analyze your own dietary patterns, says Yale’s David Katz. “Look at your diet and figure out what nutrient you might be deficient in. Make the supplements match the likely pattern of gaps in your diet.”

Next: Which supplements to choose and which to avoid

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Megan, selected from The Intelligent Optimist

Ode, the magazine for Intelligent Optimists, is an international independent journal that publishes positive news, about the people and ideas that are changing our world for the better.

18 comments

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4:28PM PDT on Sep 11, 2010

PLEASE be very careful with the supplements- 25 years ago I took a supplement(L-tryptophane) to help my migraines. Little did I know that they were contaminated. I am now left with a disease that is totally dibilitating- some have even died. Be sure you know where your supplements are manufactured and if they are pure.

7:26PM PST on Feb 11, 2010

Thanks.

3:11PM PDT on Oct 18, 2009

"To get a better omega balance, choose grass-fed sources for animal products and eat fewer packaged snacks, fried foods and cheap vegetable oils, such as salad dressings made with corn or SOY oil. And eat more fish, beans, TOFU, flax seeds and walnuts."

um, tofu is soy.... otherwise good article.

1:59PM PDT on Oct 17, 2009

It is really good information, however I think one reason people don't eat enough fruit is cost, with things like apples that cost 50 to 75 cents each it could cost 25$ a day to feed 9 servings of fruit to a family of 4....

6:01PM PDT on Oct 15, 2009

This all sounds anything but simple!

I've been avoiding supplements so far, but now being anemic I need to take high dose iron (far exceeding normal daily recommendation).

I think eating good quality animal products and large amounts of vegetables (even if they're not as nutritious as they once were) should provide most nutrition you need. That's of course if you don't have to exclude some type of food (for whatever reason), then you should look at what you're missing out on and supplement your diet.
The section on Omega3 FA is especially well written here, and again historic records show that people eating diverse and unprocessed foods used to consume well balanced FA composition long before NIH guidelines or any other official documentation

5:58PM PDT on Oct 15, 2009

If you feel the need to add supplements, make sure it's a whole food supplement. It makes all the difference in the world!

11:24AM PDT on Oct 15, 2009

Very good information, Megan, thanks so much. Also thanks to Alex for mentioning "other Ingredients", we really must be careful. It appears to me that so many foods have been altered due to human manipulation for profit, mainly in the dairy and large scale meat industry. How can industry produced meat be healthy when the animals lived confined under extreme stress eating only a certain type of food such as corn?

10:51AM PDT on Oct 15, 2009

A few things to note: If you take supplements, do so after you eat something with that same thing in it. Yes, you may be getting it in the food first, but why are you taking the supplement? This is because you can't always get enough from the food, especially, and unfortunately, today. But eat the food first!!! Otherwise, your body will become lazy and only take it from the pill, since it's easier to obtain. Therefore, it's not only not as healthy, but your body won't get the exercise it needs in order to break up the food properly/digest, and then you'll always be dependent on supplements and also have other problems.
Second, be sure your supplements break up properly. There are tons of elderly people whose insides are laden with capsules which never broke down, causing them all kinds of problems. To check yours, put it in a glass of water and wait a while. It's not wasted, you can still drink it. Some take longer to break down, yes, and even a day later, it's still broken down. But if it doesn't break down, QUIT taking it!!!
Also, organics are GREAT! But people have still gotten E-coli (at least the last thing traced to) things like spinach. Makes NO sense. But it was cross contaminated somehow, so still wash unless you really know your source. Otherwise, with great soil & care etc., a strawberry can be a complete food to survive solely on, if NOT washed. In that case, it's actually healthier NOT to wash it, because we wash off nutrients.

10:47AM PDT on Oct 15, 2009

Thanks for this good information!

8:11AM PDT on Oct 15, 2009

I love that line - "The active ingredient in broccoli is broccoli." I've been so happy with the Isotonix supplements in addition to healthful foods, because your body doesn't have to break them down like a pill (or even a typical vitamin liquid). This is great if (like me) you hate taking pills, get stomach upset from digesting pills, or just want to get your money's worth of nutrients actually absorbed. You can take the "nutri-physical" for recommendations and order a "custom cocktail" for simplicity in drinking all your supplements. Check them out here:
http://www.marketamerica.com/thelivingyou/brands-214/isotonix.htm&omcmp=m2118

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