It’s often said that food is the best source of nutrients, and that’s a fair statement. The nutrients in food are generally more bio-available than the ones in nutritional supplements. Food also undoubtedly contains micronutrients that scientists haven’t yet identified that are crucial to good health.
That said, I believe that nutritional supplements are valuable as a kind of insurance policy, to ensure that you’re getting enough vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and trace elements in your diet.
This can be important as far as maintaining a healthy weight is concerned. If a person isn’t getting the proper nutrients, the body will compensate by making you want to overeat, in order to supply the missing nutrients.
But the question arises, if you’re eating a balanced diet, why wouldn’t you get enough nutrients? There are any number of reasons. Let’s start with the most obvious.
THE MODERN DIET
The modern diet consists largely of grains, beans, and roots. Compared to plants that grow above the ground, fruit, nuts, and lean protein sources, these food sources are low in vitamins and minerals.
To make matters worse, in the last fifty years or so, more and more of our food has become more and more processed, eliminating what little nutritional content the food might have had. McDonald’s burger, anyone?
If you smoke, you are using up vitamins and minerals cannibalized by the chemical processes inherent in smoking. The reason this happens is that smoking generates large amounts of oxygen free radicals. Nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin E, and vitamin C are used by the body to neutralize these free radicals and are thus depleted.
In an animal study published by The American Society for Nutritional Sciences, it was shown that smoking caused depletion of vitamin A, which led to emphysema.
Also, in a study done at Columbia University, New York, smokers and non-smokers were given supplements of vitamin C and vitamin E and their plasma levels checked for 6 days. The scientists concluded that smoking depletes vitamin C and vitamin E.
Recreational drugs like marijuana, speed, crack, heroin, and alcohol can have analogous effects in terms of vitamin depletion as well.
These days, food products are commonly irradiated to improve their shelf life. According to a report of a Joint FAP/IAEA/WHO Study Group, this results in loss of nutrients, particularly vitamin B1, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin A, vitamin D, and vitamin K, vitamin B6, vitamin B2, and vitamin B12. Furthermore, this effect is exacerbated by the extended amount of storage time these foods are subjected to.
Industrial pollution causes free radical formation, which can lead to cellular damage, one of the main causes of premature aging. Although there is not much you can do about pollution, taking antioxidant supplements can help combat free radicals. For example, a review of randomized controlled trials published in Ophthalmic and Physiological Optics, the journal of the College of Optometrists, demonstrated that taking antioxidant supplements reduced the incidence and/or severity of macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss for people over the age of 50 in the developed world. This is not surprising, considering that oxidation is acknowledged as being at least partially responsible for many degenerative eye disorders.
The pesticides widely used in agriculture to control pests decrease the nutritional value of the crops. A review of 41 published studies, which was done by nutritionist Virginia Worthington, found that organic crops (which don’t use pesticides) had 27% more vitamin C, 29.3% more magnesium, 13.6% more phosphorus, and 21.1% more iron than their conventionally grown counterparts.
According to a study by David Thomas, the mineral content of the soil in United States farms has declined markedly between 1940 and 1991, with vegetables harvested in 1991 showing 76% less copper, 46% less calcium, 27% less iron and 24% less magnesium than their 1940 counterparts (Nutrition and Health 2003; 17: 85-115).
Why has this happened? According to Dr. William A. Albrecht, Chairman of the Department of Soils at the University of Missouri, “NPK formulas, as legislated and enforced by State Departments of Agriculture, mean malnutrition, attack by insects, bacteria and fungi, weed takeover, crop loss in dry weather, and general loss of mental acuity in the population, leading to degenerative metabolic disease and early death.”
By NPK formulas, Dr. Albrecht is referring to the common use of inorganic fertilizers, which has gone on since the 1920’s, consisting mainly of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, with calcium and iron sometimes added. Essential trace elements, which would be replaced if organic fertilizers were used, never make it back into the soil.
As you can see, there are many reasons why simply eating a balanced diet might not be enough to supply a person with adequate nutrition. The quality of the food is not the same as it was even 50 years ago, and modern environmental and lifestyle factors can deplete our bodies of nutrients as well.
That is why taking nutritional supplements to ensure adequate nutrition is a good idea.