Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Health Supplements: Take Them or Not?

This post originally appeared on Have Your Health, a past blog of mine active from 2013-14.

Not only did reading Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition change my view of health from reductionist to wholeist, but it also gave me doubts about health supplements. The first time I'd heard a healthy eater suggest that people not take health supplements was in Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food that I read earlier this year. He said that people should live like those who take supplements (since health supplement takers tend to have healthier habits), but skip the supplements.

Without going into detail, Pollan said that there isn't strong enough evidence to show that supplements positively affect our health, and that we should save the money for something else. It wasn't an overly convincing argument for someone who has been living in a pro-health supplement culture their whole life, so I kept on taking my probiotics, Vitamin C tablets, Glutamine, and the occasional protein powder scoop with my oatmeal.

But the ideas suggested in Whole made me think again. If an apple is indeed not the sum of its parts, then nutrients obtained through a tablet are not the same as nutrients obtained through whole foods. Whole foods (plants) are much better. Why?

The power of whole foods

Well, I'm learning that whole foods are fascinating. The amount of nutrients they deliver to your body depends on what nutrients your body currently has and lacks. Incredible! Also, whole foods contain a combination of nutrients and ingredients, made by nature and the sun, that work together in that special arrangement to nurture our bodies.

We can digest and healthily nurture ourselves with whole foods, but what about supplements? It seems to me the manufactured dosage and contents of a supplement could throw your body for a loop, and who knows what the consequences could be. Why not stick to whole foods instead? 

Personally, I like to take a natural view to answer questions like these, without looking at detailed research and experiments. Feel free to disagree with my method, but it works for me and I'm satisfied with the results. For example, just think about it: What do other living creatures eat? Do they eat health supplements or whole foods? Do the people in Okinawa, Japan - with one of the healthiest human populations on the planet - take health supplements? Do healthy bonobos and chimpanzees eat health supplements? No! They eat whole foods.

The health supplement business makes money

The other factor to look at is money. Like pharmaceuticals, the health supplement is a money-making business. This editorial in The Ledger from February of 2014 states that Americans now spend about $32 billion on vitamins and dietary supplements each year. The more I read about the history of health supplement politics, the inconclusiveness of studies, and the money made from these corporations, the more it becomes obvious that supplements aren't a good idea.

Eat whole foods, not health supplements

I'll close by responding to two alarming statements I read on a WeightTraining.com post about supplements and vitamins, though I'm sure the ideas are shared elsewhere. Heck, it's how I thought just a few short months ago!
"Because the average person over the age of 18 does not eat enough fruits and vegetables, supplements should be taken to aid digestion and improve overall health."
No! So wrong! If the problem is that adults aren't eating enough fruits and vegetables, let's fix the problem directly: Eat more fruits and vegetables!
Change the country's food pyramid to include more fruits and vegetables, educate both children and adults, have doctors talk about eating fruits and vegetables with their patients, make fruits and veggies the more prominent section of grocery stores, help farmers that grow fruits and vegetables through legislation, get more farmers markets up and running, etc. Here's the worst:
"Multivitamins should be taken if you have a diet that is heavy in processed and fast foods."
Whaa?! Again, no!! The logic is so backwards! If you have a diet that is heavy in processed and fast foods, you need to change your diet. Gradually introduce whole foods into your diet until you can completely cut out processed and fast foods. (100 Days of Real Food has a great, free "14-weeks of 'real food' mini-pledges" program shared on their site if you're not sure how to start changing your diet.)

As I've touched on in other posts, our society/government needs to make a lot of changes too, since the norm today is that Americans eat processed and fast foods without a second thought. But we can't wait for the majority to catch on before we change our eating habits - have your health now by eating whole foods, mostly plants. Take care of your health, no supplements needed.

Since reading Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition, I haven't been taking my daily probiotics, glutamine, or Vitamin C. It wasn't a conscious decision, "I'm going to stop taking them forever!". Rather, it just sort of happened as I read more about the ineffectiveness and possible dangers of supplements.

Do you take health/dietary supplements? Will you continue to do so? Have you taken supplements in the past and since stopped? I'd love to hear your take on this issue!
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