Supplements and Whole Foods – Why They Work Better as a Team
Any chance you watched Dexter’s Laboratory when you were a kid? If you did, you may remember a particular episode where Dexter switched homes with a goofy, unintelligent, little boy who looked just like him and whose parents were genius scientists. Dexter was thrilled with his new home until dinner time when he was presented, not with a plate of delicious home-cooked food, but with a variety of pills that were specially formulated to meet his exact nutritional needs…no food required. This idea is, of course, preposterous, and naturally Dexter was less than pleased. After all, who in their right mind would want to get all their nutrients from pills rather than from food? And yet, a lot of people operate this way without realizing it, and unfortunately for them it doesn’t work particularly well.
“My Diet Isn’t Great, but I Take My Vitamins”
Many of us grew up in homes where we could eat Frosted Flakes for breakfast, PB&J for lunch, and Ramen noodles for dinner…just so long as we had our Flintstones vitamins before bed. Now, I’m not knocking the Flintstones or Ramen noodles, they have their place, but this kind of diet simply isn’t adequate. Many of the nutrients needed to absorb the vitamins that the Flintstones offered, simply weren’t available in the chosen foods. Will the vitamin do any good? Yes, it probably will, but not as much as it could do if it were taken with more nutrient dense foods. The Flintstones, and almost all other nutritional supplements, need to be taken in addition to a healthy diet in order to be optimally absorbed and utilized.
It kind of sounds like we’re in cahoots with fruit and vegetable growers doesn’t it? We’re actually not though. Most nutrients have a synergistic relationship with other chemicals and nutrients; they need one another to be properly absorbed and utilized by the body. To illustrate this concept, let’s look at the biochemical processes involved in producing antioxidant enzymes from eating broccoli vs. taking a broccoli extract supplement. The cells in broccoli contain different plant compounds from one another which remain separate in the plant, but when broccoli is chewed and digested, those chemical compounds come into contact with each other and react. The antioxidant compound called glucoraphanin in broccoli needs to connect with vitamins and minerals stored elsewhere in the plant in order for it to become an active, useful antioxidant in the body. If the glucoraphanin is not activated by these other chemicals, then it’s lost in the urine and never helps the body.1 When we eat broccoli as a whole food, we can be guaranteed that these reactions will happen. This brings us to broccoli extract supplements. These supplements are packed with potential and provide far more glucoraphanin per gram than their whole food counterpart, but they require activation, just like the antioxidants in the broccoli plant. To activate the supplement’s antioxidants, you should eat healthy, whole foods high in phytochemicals along with your pill. Choosing foods high in vitamins A, C, and E would best help your body convert the glucoraphanin in the pill to its active form, just like the A, C, and E in the broccoli’s cells helps convert the glucoraphanin stored in adjacent cells.1
This kind of synergistic relationship between nutrients exists across the board. The more nutrients you ingest in food, the better able you are to absorb and use nutrients you take in from any other source, whether from your diet or from your supplement plan. You want to get more calcium? Don’t forget your Vitamin D. Need more iron? Don’t forget to take it with Vitamin C. Trying to get more Vitamins A, D, E, and K? You better have them with a little fat, or they’ll go right through you. The easiest way to get all these nutrients is to eat a balanced, healthy diet regularly. That way you won’t have to do supplement math and cross your fingers that you did it right. Bottom line, eating a variety of healthy foods along with your supplements will go a long way in helping your body to absorb and use the nutrients you’re taking in.
“I Have a Very Healthy Diet So I Don’t Need Supplements”
Now maybe you read that and you’re thinking you don’t need supplements because you eat a healthy, balanced diet. That may be true, but it may not be. In the last three decades, scientists have discovered that many of our modern plant foods are relatively low in the micronutrients we evolved to eat a lot of when we were hunter-gatherers eating wild foods.2 For example, wild apples have up to of 475 times as many phytonutrients as farmed apples.3 What does this mean? It means that feeding our bodies well could likely mean getting nutrition from both whole, healthy foods, and from concentrated extracts and supplements like multivitamins and minerals. (Unless of course you decide to start foraging for wild foods and live on dandelion greens and crab apples like your ancient ancestors.) For example, many people take an Omega-3 supplement because they know they’re not getting adequate amounts in their diet. But, there are literally thousands of nutrients and phytochemicals that your body uses to function optimally, so chances are there’s something in addition to Omega-3 that’s lacking in your diet. Every body and set of genetics is unique though, so what each of us needs may vary from one person to the next. Supplements can provide a good option to help fill in any gaps left by a healthy diet.4
In parting, remember that eating healthy, whole foods, and lots of plants foods, is one of the simplest, safest, and most effective things we can do to promote good health in our bodies. As with every preventative/restorative measure though, sometimes these changes alone are not enough to help our bodies function the way we want or need them to. If you are struggling with health problems, please contact your doctor or other healthcare provider such a Naturopath, Dietitian, or Mental Health Professional to see if they can offer appropriate guidance and care. We at Wholesome Story believe that healthy communities require community effort, so we advise you to keep your healthcare community aware and involved in your journey as you pursue better health.
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- Boddupalli S, Mein JR, Lakkanna S, James DR. Induction of phase 2 antioxidant enzymes by broccoli sulforaphane: Perspectives in maintaining the antioxidant activity of vitamins A, C, and E. Frontiers in genetics. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3264924/. Published January 24, 2012. Accessed November 4, 2021.
- Robinson J. Introduction. In: Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company; 2014:3-17.
- Robinson J. Chapter 10. In: Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company; 2014:215-238.
- Ward E. Addressing nutritional gaps with multivitamin and mineral supplements. Nutrition journal. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4109789/. Published July 15, 2014. Accessed November 5, 2021.
- Carrasco, A. (2020, January 1). The top 5 hormone balancing superfoods. Nourish Medicine. https://nourishmedicine.com/top-5-superfoods-hormonal-balance/