There’s a lot of conflicting information out there about supplements. Some say it’s only good for making “expensive pee.” And worse still, could supplements be damaging to your health?
Here’s the lowdown. A healthy diet and lifestyle must always come first. As the saying goes, “You cannot supplement away a bad diet.” Not only does a healthy nutrient-focused diet provide a wide range of vitamins and minerals, it also provides phytochemicals (plant chemicals). Vitamins and minerals are considered “essential,” which means that you would suffer disease if deficient and this can be fatal. However, although phytochemicals are not considered “essential” in the same way, they are nevertheless needed for optimal functioning, and you’d get sick if your diet is completely devoid of them.
So, first and foremost, eat a healthy diet and live as healthy a lifestyle as possible. Think “nutrient-dense” real whole foods. The ideal is for you to get all of what your body needs from food, to keep your body functioning optimally and even slow down the effects of what we often put down to aging. This is especially important for our modern day lifestyle, where stress can deplete nutrients in our body, and where nutrients are needed to help neutralise the toxins that we take in from our environment. But getting ample levels of nutrients is unlikely for most of us, due to a combination of factors.
Firstly, our busy lifestyle often means that we tend to eat the same foods over and over, and if this is you, you may be missing out on certain nutrients. Eating a wide diversity of foods helps you get the broadest range of nutrients that your body needs.
Secondly, there are many foods that our grandparents ate, even relished, that many of us simply don’t eat anymore. One example is liver, which is a nutrient-dense source of vitamins B12, A, B2 and B9 (folate), as well as iron and copper. If you love liver, good for you! And make sure that it’s organic.
Thirdly, our modern intensive farming methods. Where farming once meant the production of many different crops or animals, specialisation has led to just one of two outputs. Rotation of crops which allowed the replenishment of soil nutrients such as nitrogen, and the use of horsepower which meant manure for the land, are now features of the past, contributing to soil depletion. Plants cannot make their own minerals and need to get it from the soil and hence, the need for using fertilisers. However, the overuse of chemical fertilisers can result in the depletion of other essential nutrients and can kill bacteria that create organic material essential to plants. Modern crops may provide a better yield but potentially at a trade-off for lower nutrient levels relative to traditional varieties. Indeed, although accurately measuring nutrient levels in foods can be difficult, it is thought that plants that our grandparents ate had a higher level of nutrients than the average plant we get today from our supermarket. On the animal side, the use of antibiotics and inappropriate feed, or crowded farming can jeopardise the quality of the meat.
Fourthly, the globalisation of our food supply means that we eat food that is flown from all over the world. However, we have no idea how old those green beans are that we got from the supermarket. Nor do we know how the food was stored and how long ago they were harvested. The moment a plant is harvested, the vitamins start to degrade, so that by the time that vegetable gets to you, there’s no knowing how much is left.
So, the long and short of it is that there is no guarantee that you are getting adequate amounts of the vitamins and minerals that your body needs on a daily basis. To put it another way, our modern diet can lead to small shortfalls in certain vitamins and minerals, and this can make a difference to how well your body runs.
A good quality multivitamin can help to make sure that you are getting at least your daily Recommended Nutrient Intake (RNI), which is the minimum nutrient level to keep the majority of the population from becoming deficient, and is suitable for daily supplementation. I am very particular about the grade of supplements that I recommend. It’s tempting to think that all supplements are created equal. They are not, so be sure to make sure it is a reputable brand.
Finally, should you supplement with anything else beyond a good quality multivitamin? Perhaps, and then, supplementation should be targeted and for a specific purpose and you should know why you’re taking it and for how long. Over-dosing on supplements can be just a problematic as not getting enough nutrients. Next, I’ll write about what other supplements may also be good to take.