With an increasing focus on living a healthier life, there’s more information available than ever before about the role good nutrition plays.  Advances in science have enabled us to take a ‘micro’ look at the nutrients in our foods, and establish usage guidelines for optimum consumption.

It’s relatively easy to read “Recommended Daily Allowance” summaries and assume that a handful of drug store vitamins are all you need to live a vibrant, active life.  It’s SO like our ‘instant gratification’ culture to want the ‘magic pill’ that brings us good health – right now!

But our bodies aren’t mechanical devices — we don’t live on vitamins and minerals alone. Sound nutrition is based on a number of factors, and it starts with a commitment to “food first.”  Registered dietitian Karen Ansel says: “It’s always better to get your nutrients from food, with its thousands of phytochemicals, fiber, and more, working together to promote good health. That can’t be duplicated with a pill or a cocktail of supplements.”  For instance, studies at Cornell University found that apple extract given with apple skin was better at preventing free-radical oxidation than just the apple extract itself.

In addition, the concept of ‘food synergy’ can help explain why vitamins in whole foods can often be better absorbed than vitamins from a capsule.  Certain foods eaten together can enhance the impact of the nutrition found in each item.  For instance, it’s long been known that Vitamin C found in dark green vegetables can increase our ability to absorb iron in lean meats, fish or beans when eaten together.  And two healthy vegetables, broccoli, and tomatoes, when eaten together, were found to be even more powerful in tumor control than when either was eaten separately.

Often, simple additions can go a long way towards improving a healthy meal and raise the nutritive value overall. Adding avocado, or another ‘good’ fat can help improve the body’s usage of all the phytochemicals in a colorful salad — by up to 13.6 times for beta-carotene, which is believed to protect against cancer and heart disease.

Whole foods, ideally, provide a wide range of the nutrition we need — not just the vitamins and minerals, but all the antioxidants, enzymes, fiber, and macro-nutrients as well. That’s why it’s important to eat a variety of whole foods — to cover all the food groups, so the nutrients can all work together.

Where Do Supplements Fit In?

As the term implies, additions of specific vitamins and minerals to your diet should ‘supplement’ your baseline healthy eating plan.  Because of the mineral depletion of our soils, many crops today just don’t measure up nutritionally to the foods our grandparents enjoyed, so some deficiencies are common.  Calcium, potassium, Vitamin D, and Vitamin B-12, for instance, are commonly supplemented. For pregnant women, iron and folic acid are also important, and certain medications can create side effects that require ‘replacement nutrients’.

Some vegan or vegetarian diets are lacking in certain vitamins or minerals, and folks who have food allergies, or eat from limited food groups, or are on very low-calorie diets, also may fall short of key nutrients.  And taking fat-soluble vitamins on an empty stomach, for instance, limits absorption when compared to taking the vitamin with a healthy fat. So, it’s important to work with your healthcare professional to understand your own situation and find solutions that work best for your specific health goals.

When choosing supplements, you’ll find either natural or synthetic options. Consumer Labs reports that for Vitamin E, for example, natural options may be better – they have more active Vitamin E than the synthetic version. For Vitamin C, however, either natural or synthetic sources are fine — they both provide the same ascorbic acid compound, so there’s very little difference. For adults over 50, Vitamin B-12 in supplement form is more effective, as they may have trouble digesting natural B-12 in foods.  Be sure you don’t exceed the recommended dosages – it’s difficult to do with food, but you can overdo on supplements, thinking, ‘if a little is good, a lot is better’.

The major consideration in choosing supplements should be quality — look for a reputable manufacturer, with clear product labeling, and science-based research to back up their products. Unlike the pharmaceutical industry, with products regulated by the FDA for safety, the supplement industry has no such levels of FDA ‘approval.’  So, you want to be able to trust the manufacturer, their scientific research, their manufacturing processes, and product quality.  Cheaper products usually indicate they may be using fillers, or lower quality ingredients to meet minimum requirements, so you may not get the nutritional value you hoped for.

Quick Guidelines for Good Nutrition

  1. Food First – a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, healthy protein, dairy, fats, fiber and plenty of water
  2. Shop organic when you can
  3. Choose high antioxidant foods – berries, beans, apples, cherries, artichokes, plums, grapes, nuts, dark green vegetables
  4. Avoid junk food or processed foods — they contain artificial ingredients, chemicals, and preservatives or saturated fats
  5. Limit sugars, high-glycemic foods, and simple carbohydrates
  6. Be a ‘detective’ — find your ‘missing nutrients’ with a daily food journal
  7. Consider working with a nutritionist, registered dietician, or functional medical specialist for expert guidance

Bottom line, scientists are constantly discovering new biologically active phytonutrients. Just a short decade ago, we began to understand the benefits of lycopene in tomatoes or anthocyanins in blueberries — now they are commonly discussed in nutrition news.

The newly identified micro-nutrients just aren’t in supplements.  As Roberta Anding, MS, RD, and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, reminds us, “the power is on the plate, not in a pill.”  With a plate full of rainbow-colored plant-based foods, you’ll enjoy low calorie, high nutrition health!

Sources:

Zelman, K.M. What Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Can and Can’t Do. (n.d) retrieved January 23, 2017, from Web MD Web Site: http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/nutrition-vitamins-11/help-vitamin-supplement

Vitamin Supplements: Healthy or Hoax?  (n.d) retrieved January 23, 2017, from American Heart Association Web Site: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Vitamin-Supplements-Healthy-or-Hoax_UCM_432104_Article.jsp#.WIUp4H3frX4

Consumer Lab Answers. (n.d) retrieved January 23 2017, from Consumer Lab Web Site: https://www.consumerlab.com/answers /Is+it+better+to+get+vitamins+from+foods+or+supplements%2C+and+are+natural+vitamins+better+than+synthetic+vitamins%3F/natural_vs_synthetic_vitamin/

Food Synergy: Nutrients That Work Better Together. (n.d) retrieved January 23, 2017, from Web MD Web Site: http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/food-synergy-nutrients-that-work-better-together#1

20 Common Foods With the Most Antioxidants. (n.d) retrieved January 23, 2017, from Web MD Web Site: http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/20-common-foods-most-antioxidants