Over the last couple of weeks I have been asked many questions about the use of nutritional supplements and whether I am in favour of them or just about food. Some of the interactions were even fairly confrontational which showed that there are clearly some strong opinions here. The thing that started all of this conversation was a picture that I posted on Instagram (by the way, if you don’t follow me then follow me here https://www.instagram.com/themedicinalchef/?hl=en @themedicinalchef ). It was this picture…
I went into try one of these intravenous vitamin infusions. Now, before anyone gets excited, I am not saying anyone needs to do this or am I including them in any of my recommendations, I always experiment on myself and I just wanted to TRY it to see what it was all about. Anyway, considering the interaction I got, I thought I would tell you my stance on nutritional supplements.
I use nutritional supplements. I have hundreds at home. I even used to be Technical Director at Viridian Nutrition (one of the UK’s leading supplement brands). So it is fair to say that I am in favour of them. The point is we have to see them as what they are. They are tools to do a specific job and they are a SUPPLEMENT to a healthy lifestyle. Like a supplementary income can top up your wages, a nutritional supplement is there to address any shortcomings and enhance a healthy diet and lifestyle. Of course working with food is my absolute primary focus and let me tell you, no supplement in the known Universe could even closely replicate the complexities of a healthy diet. The diversity of phytochemicals, their interactions, nutritional compositions, the complexity and diversity really is stunning. However, there are certain issues that we need to be aware of in modern times, which I will come on to.
In my view I think supplements can be divided into two main groups. Those that are suitable for daily use by everyone, and those that should be used under the guidance of a professional. So lets look at the first group, those that are suitable, and likely a good idea, to be used by everyone. Really there are only two – a multivitamin and omega 3. I am a firm believer in a daily multivitamin. Whenever I here the argument ‘you can get everything you need from a good balanced diet’ it actually makes me laugh because it is such a cop out response to the complexities of nutrition, our food chain in modern life, and the impact of modern life upon our physiology. There once was an idea that our diets can provide us with everything that we need, and to be fair 50 years ago that may have been pretty close to the case. Any of you that have studied nutrition may be aware of the work of McCance and Widdowson, who wrote an absolute tome of a text called ‘The Composition of Food’. They spend a huge number of years analysing samples of every day foods to determine their entire nutritional content. From protein, fats and carbohydrates, to vitamins, minerals, and trace elements.
This text set the entire stage for the information that we see today. When you look online for ‘how much vitamin c is in broccoli’ it is the work of McCance and Widdowson that the number you get back from your search is derived from. Now…here is the kicker. My response when someone tells me that 100g of broccoli contains 89.2mg of vitamin C (google it!!) is “how do you know??” For the simple reason that a foods nutritional composition, specifically micronutritional composition, can be influenced DRAMATICALLY by external factors. Lets start with where and how it was grown. If you pulled that broccoli out of your well attended allotment and ate it within an hour, then yep you may be pretty close to that. However, if you ducked in the supermarket and bought some packaged broccoli grown in Outer Mongolia, who only knows when, then the story may be different. Remember we are talking biological intricate interactions not baking a cake.
The nutritional composition is often a direct reflection of the environment that the food was grown in. Nutrients like selenium in food for example are a direct reflection of the selenium content of the soil, and if the soil has been intensively farmed, then the selenium content will all but disappear completely. Well treated responsibly cared for soils will provide a medium for the growing plant that will allow it to produce and synthesise nutrients and phytochemicals, and other nutrients will be directly extracted from the soil. Think about our modern food production and the penny should start to drop there.
Now the next point. How and for how long was the food stored. Using the vitamin C example, the second a plant is harvested, the vitamin C begins to break down and degrade and the vitamin C content of that plant gets lower and lower. So again if you pull it off of your allotment and eat it the same day then there will be negligible loss. If however a field full gets harvested, placed onto a plane, sent half way around the World, then left in cold storage for weeks on end only to be taken out in batches to supply the Supermarkets, then the degradation will be significant.
The final point here is how the food is then prepared. If you boil your veg then forget it. You may as well down the water it was cooked in. Some nutrients like vitamin C and the B vitamins are water soluble and very quickly leach out into the water that they are being cooked in. The finished vegetable when served will be a mere costume of the foodstuff it was before. Sure, there will be fibre and certain phytochemicals but many things can be lost. If how ever you were to saute, or lightly steam, then its a completely different ball game. You retain much of what is there.
So, hopefully you can see from these issues that there is ZERO guarantee that our daily diet is providing adequate levels of important nutrients for day to day health. No guarantee whatsoever. So a good quality multivitamin with our RDA’s covered just takes the guess work out. YES 100% you eat a great diet because a good diet is about a vast amount more than just vitamins and minerals, but this small supplement can ensure all the right pieces are there.
Now, the second part of the picture, those supplements that need professional guidance. Quite simply these are the individual nutrients. Single nutrients. This is because nutrients work synergistically in the body and there is a consistent dance between them. If the level of one is too high or too low, it can create negative interactions and responses, false deficiency signs, affect absorption or utilisation of others, disable chemical pathways, over accelerate chemical pathways, and then of course there is VERY REAL risk of toxicity too. Get the balance wrong and there can be serious consequences. Something like a multivitamin has been designed exactly with that in mind. I worked as a technical Director at a supplement company and the vigorous detail and basis from which things are created is incredible. So a good multi, no issue. However, just taking individual nutrients off the shelf willy nilly can be risky. This is where you need to work with a practitioner. We would use individual nutrients as tools to do a certain job and to deliver a specific clinical outcome. We understand the complex interactions and potential risks or issues. We know dosage points for efficacy and what would present risk. We know about interactions with medications or suitability of the right supplements with certain disease states (eg if someone has haemochromotosis, you want them to be keeping well away from iron and vitamin c). It is complex and it is serious.
So that is my stance. A daily multi vitamin and some extra omega 3 – great idea and absolutely completely and utterly safe. This broad spectrum supplementation must NEVER be seen as a replacement for good diet. Then, there are other supplements that have a specific job to do and are very valuable tools at doing so but PLEASE get advice. Either find a local practitioner or go to a local health food store that has practitioners in store. Get advice and don’t just take things blindly.
Hope this sheds some light on a few things.