Are Supplements Necessary?

In a perfect world, the answer would be “no.” In the world we live in, I believe the answer is often “yes.” I’ve heard it said many times that supplements are unnecessary, as you should be receiving all of your nutrients from a balanced diet.  Some argue that our ancestors weren’t popping pills to stay healthy, so why should we? However, our modern environment is profoundly different than that of our ancestors.   Examples include:

  • A decline in soil diversity and quality and thus, a consequent decline in nutrient-dense foods
  • A decrease in the variety of fruits and vegetables consumed
  • Consumption of mass-produced, processed foods
  • An increase in exposure to food additives and environmental toxins
  • Overuse of antibiotics and other medications that damage the liver
  • An increase in chronic stress
  • A decrease in sleep quality and duration
  • A reduced connection with nature and less time spent outdoors
  • An increase in the number of hours we spend sitting

Supplements are meant to supplement your diet, not to correct a bad diet. There is no substitution for eating well! Food not only provides vitamins and minerals but also fiber, antioxidants, phytochemicals and many other compounds that interact in ways that supplements can’t. However, it takes a lot of time, energy, and money to eat a perfectly balanced diet and those things are hard to come by in our modern world! By consuming certain supplements, you are ensuring that your body is taken care of, even when you aren’t necessarily making the conscious effort. A daily multivitamin is safe, effective and can go a long way toward correcting nutritional deficiencies. Some other supplements to consider:

  • Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium and is necessary for bone health.  It is integral to your immune system, muscles, blood vessels, and nervous system.  Consider taking if you spend a lot of time indoors, are over 50, or have dark skin.
  • Potassium reduces your risk of stroke and heart disease.  It’s found in bananas, leafy greens, oranges, raisins, milk, etc.  Consider taking if you have a heart condition or are African American, as those populations are at higher risk for hypertension and heart disease.  Too much can be harmful to older people or people with kidney problems.
  • Folate prevents neural tube defects in utero, such as spina bifida.  It’s synthetic version, folic acid, is found in many processed food sources, such as citric fruit juices, pasta, bread, and fortified breakfast cereals, but there is evidence that it can be more harmful than beneficial in the amounts included in a processed diet. Folate is naturally occurring and found in dark green vegetables, nuts, and legumes. If you are pregnant find a supplement that sources folate from real foods, like the Garden of Life Prenatal. 
  • Iron, Zinc and Vitamin B12 are crucial nutrients that are more readily available from animal products, thus making them hard to come by in vegetarian and vegan diets.  Red blood cells use iron to transport oxygen and nutrients, so not getting enough could lead to anemia.    Zinc is found in every cell in the body and helps with everything from maintaining your immune system to reproduction.  It can be found in plant sources but is hard for the body to absorb.  Our bodies don’t make vitamin B12, and it can only be obtained through animal products or supplements.  It is essential for maintaining the brain and nervous system, as it helps make your DNA and red blood cells.  Low levels can lead to anemia, pregnancy complications, fatigue, muscle weakness, nerve damage, and even vision loss. 
  • Calcium maintains healthy bones and prevents osteoporosis.  Pair this supplement with Vitamin D to improve absorption, especially if you don’t consume or have a hard time digesting dairy products. 
  • Fish Oil has a host of benefits and unless you’re consuming 2+ servings of fish per week, your body could use more of it!  Fish oil comes from the tissues of oily fish and contains omega-3 fatty acids called DHA and EPA, which are essential for the optimum performance of the heart and brain.  Studies have shown that fish oil may improve the risk factors for heart disease, increase weight loss when paired with exercise, support eye health, reduce inflammation, maintain healthy skin, reduce arthritis and joint pain, and even improve symptoms of anxiety, depression, and hyperactivity. The types of fish most commonly used in fish oil supplements are salmon, cod liver, mackerel, sardines, halibut, pollock, and herring.  Doses vary based on age and health.  Many supplements contain 1,000 mg of fish oil per serving, but be sure to look for one that contains at least 500 mg of EPA and DHA per 1,000 mg of fish oil.  Also check the label for purity, form, and sustainability certifications.  Fish oil is best taken with a meal to reduce the side effects of “fishy burps” and bad breath.

You should always exercise caution when taking a supplement of any kind and it’s wise to consult with your primary physician and have blood tests run to see where you’re deficient.  Toxic effects of high doses of vitamins and minerals are well documented and certain medicines such as antibiotics, birth control, laxatives, and aspirin can interact with them as well.  Bottom line: there are many benefits of taking supplements, but nothing beats the taste of whole foods!  Here’s to a longer, happier life through healthy choices!     

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