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Healthy Foods Versus Supplements? The Answer May Surprise You

Why can’t I just take a supplement? Doesn’t that give me the same health benefits as eating a plate of vegetables? I often get questions like this from patients, and the answer is…it’s complicated. That’s because on one hand no amount of supplements can replace a good diet in terms of phytonutrients, macro nutrient balance, etc. But on the other hand, even the best of diets can leave you depleted of some key nutrients.

When there is a readily available food source, the nutrients from natural foods sit in complexes that are overall better absorbed and better utilized by the body than those from a supplemental pill. Food, particularly plant-based, whole food, cannot be replaced. As Aristotle said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” For example, an extract loses the synergy of everything around it in the food it came from. Hence, when a particular vitamin, mineral, enzyme, antioxidant, or phytonutrient is isolated and made into a pill, you miss out on the important sister compounds found in the original whole food source. But there are many factors to consider.

All Food Is Not Created Equally

Take a peach, for example. Sure, you can consume individual supplements that contain the same potassium, magnesium, and vitamin C found in peaches. But by eating the fruit itself you get added value from this fruit’s four natural phenolic compounds: anthocyanins, chlorogenic acids, quercetins, and catechins that in combination help keep your weight in line.

Additionally, a peach’s phytonutrients also serve as prebiotics, which stimulate the growth of friendly bacteria in your intestines. So, with this example that would mean taking a total of five supplements—potassium, magnesium, vitamin C, a digestive enzyme, and acidophilus—to get close to the benefits of eating a fresh organic peach. And these are only five—so do you also take pills for the peach’s glutathione, phenolics, delphinidin, rutin, and carotenoids? We know that there are an estimated 100,000 beneficial phytonutrients in food, and while we only have a limited understanding of a fraction of them, we do know you would need to take a lot of pills to match that hundred thousand.

In general, therefore, eating whole food provides unique and synergistic health benefits that exceed what individual components have on their own.

What Does a Healthy Diet Look Like?

If you want to look better, feel better, and perform better, then eat better. But what does eat better really mean? My team at the Marcus Institute, Thomas Jefferson University, recommends plant-based meals with an abundance of vegetables, up to three-quarters of your plate, together with a protein source that can be plant-based or judicious use of some animal proteins, particularly fresh fish. Avoid sugary foods for breakfast. This is the one meal that most of us struggle with as we have become conditioned to eat breakfast cereals or something sweet in the form of a pastry or muffin. Instead, aim for a plant-based or protein-based breakfast. Most people are short on time in the morning, so we often recommend a high quality shake made with plant-based protein; it’s quick and easy and for an added bonus, you can customize it to meet your nutritional needs. Try to avoid adding too much fruit. We don’t recommend more than one serving of fruit per day, since so many people in adulthood are challenged with insulin resistance.

In general, we encourage our patients to avoid focusing on calories or the scale when making changes to their diet and instead, look at the positive benefits that healthy foods can give you so you want more of them.

Leafy greens give you energy, cruciferous veggies protect you, legumes balance you, nuts give you strength, fruits (in moderation) can be used as sweet treats. Healthy fats like olive oil are heart-healthy and neuroprotective, and with their anti-aging nutrients can keep you young.

We outline the details of our food plan in our popular press book Tapestry of Health, and below is a summary of some of our key suggestions. The bottom line is to focus on adding more foods that we term “givers” which will help you to naturally reduce those that are “takers” and deplete the system. It has been our experience that over time the healthier options crowd out the unhealthy ones without you feeling deprived.

Is Food the Same as It Used to Be?

Let’s say you are eating a healthy diet similar to what we describe above. Here’s where things get complicated. Even if you eat well you may not get enough of some key nutrients. There are a few reasons to consider.

Soil Depletion, Genetic Engineering, and Fertilizers Affect Nutritional Value

Research scientist Donald Davis, Biochemical Institute at The University of Texas, reviewed evidence for nutrient declines which began to appear in the 1940s with observations of environmental dilution effects on minerals in many food plants (Davis, 2009).

Further, recent studies of historical nutrient content for fruits and vegetables spanning 50 to 70 years show apparent declines of 5 percent to 40 percent or more in minerals, vitamins, and protein in groups of foods, especially in vegetables. Recently, some side-by-side comparisons of crops of the same food have proven the existence of genetic dilution effects where there is selective breeding for high yield production.

So far, these studies uniformly show tradeoffs between yield and nutrient concentrations, suggesting a broad phenomenon. In fruits, vegetables, and grains, usually 80 percent to 90 percent of the dry weight yield is carbohydrate. When breeders select for high yield, they are, in effect, selecting mostly for high carbohydrate with no assurance that dozens of other nutrients and thousands of phytochemicals will all increase in proportion to yield. Thus, it is noted by Davis that genetic dilution effects seem unsurprising.

A related study concluded that soil depletion, pesticides, fertilizers, and other additives designed to increase growth also have the unfortunate effect of decreasing the nutritional value of those crops. As you might imagine, advocates for organic farming have seized on these findings as further proof that conventional framing may be less expensive at the grocery checkout, but it is much more expensive overall when you take into account the costs associated with sickness.

Loss of Nutritional Value from Harvest to Table

The fact that most produce loses 30 percent of its nutritional value just three days after it is picked and the loss continues with each successive day, according to studies, also helps explain why eating well may not be enough to give you the nutrients you need. Though the research is inconclusive, it appears that frozen options might be a reasonable second choice to fresh food, but canned foods are definitely not.

Medications May Cause Nutrient Depletions

Another well-documented reason you may not get the nutrients you need just by eating fresh food has to do with the medicines you take. Research shows that as many as 70 percent of Americans are on at least one prescription drug. What you may not know is that many of the medications can deplete your body of important nutrients.

Here are some common medications and the nutrients they deplete in your body.

  • Thiazide diuretics for heart, liver, and kidney disease deplete CoQ10, magnesium, potassium, sodium, zinc.
  • Loop diuretics for heart, liver, and kidney disease deplete calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, vitamins B2, B6, C, and zinc.
  • ACE inhibitors for high blood pressure deplete zinc and sodium.
  • HMG-CoA Reductase statins for high cholesterol deplete carnitine, copper, CoQ10, essential fatty acids, selenium, vitamins D and E, and zinc.
  • Metformin for high blood sugar depletes CoQ10, folic acid, and vitamin B12.

How Does Stress Affect What You Eat?

Stress. It’s an unavoidable part of our daily lives these days. We all experience it, but we may not be aware of the harm it can do within our body. Picture yourself living in serene countryside without the stress of city life. The spinach or other healthy food you eat there is absorbed and utilized by your digestive system better than the spinach you eat in the midst of your distressed life. Furthermore, stress puts demands on your body’s store of nutrients, so you need larger intakes to offset this cycle.

One of the main problems with ongoing stress is the depletion of nutrients.

The stress response is fight or flight; either action requires significant energy. Stress utilizes many nutrients for energy production, such as B vitamins, so in times of high stress supplementing these may make sense. It is also important to incorporate ways of disconnecting from stressors in your daily routine.

You May Need More Than You Can Eat

There are some things that are very difficult to get enough of in the diet, either because of available food sources or because you may have a unique need for extra of something.

A prime example of this is Vitamin D. This is one supplement that we encourage many people to take, unless their blood levels show that it’s not necessary. Why are we strong supporters of vitamin D supplementation?

For most people in the world, the main source of vitamin D is the sun, and not food. It does exist in some food sources but not everyone has plentiful access to them, particularly some specific marine based foods. Being outdoors used to be a typical part of daily life so we would have gotten this nutrient directly from their exposure to sunlight. But things have changed. Nowadays people are cautious about the sun’s harmful UV rays and lather up with sunscreen or stay out of the sun.

The result is a staggering 85 percent of Americans are estimated to be deficient in vitamin D. The good news is that this is easy to supplement and relatively inexpensive.

What Is the Best Solution?

First and foremost, a whole food, plant-based diet. While I will always advocate the benefits of eating high quality food, it is recognized that our food today does not contain the same nutrients it used to, compounded by the fact that our lifestyles also impact the way our body absorbs nutrients, and the fact that some people need extra of certain nutrients. Therefore, a limited plan of daily supplements to help fill in any nutritional gaps is often recommended.

I generally suggest keeping supplement regimens simple. Our team has a short list of common additions to the diet: a multivitamin, additional omega-3 fatty acids when needed, and a probiotic when needed. Sometimes we recommend some extra Magnesium at night for restless sleepers. And as above, stay on top of vitamin D levels; many people need to be taking it supplementally.

The multivitamin should contain antioxidants beta carotene and vitamins C and E,
B-complex vitamins B1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, and 12, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, plus trace minerals zinc, iron, copper, chromium, and selenium.

Alongside supplementation, try to maximize the nutrient potential of your food.

Go for organic vegetables and fruits wherever possible. I know organic is not in everyone’s budget but encourage you to follow lists compiled by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) that highlight the ‘Dirty Dozen’ (foods with the heavier amounts of toxic residues) and the ‘Clean 15’, fruits and vegetables that contain relatively low amounts of fertilizer or pesticide residue. Lists such as these can help you make the most informed choices at the supermarket. Finally, aim to eat your meal in a relaxed environment, even if it means stepping back from your computer for 20 minutes. Don’t eat on the run or in your car.

I know that the path to optimal wellness is fraught with contradictions and mixed messages. My goal is to help people cut through the confusion with easy-to-implement tools to help you weave wellness into your everyday life.

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