Not long ago, I got in a bit of a heated debate with a fitness colleague regarding the need for supplementation when someone has a “healthy diet”. What follows is a brief summary of some of my points regarding the need for supplementation. Since this discussion, I have added some supporting literature to make for a more objective discussion.
Argument: If I eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, then I don’t need to add vitamins and minerals.
Answer: The argument that the nutritional needs of the body can be thoroughly met through diet is probably a valid one, as long as certain assumptions hold true. The main assumption is that the diet is made up almost entirely of fresh fruit and vegetables from local and trusted growers who understand crop rotation and proper soil fertilization. A fruit’s nutrition is highest at the height of its ripeness when the fruit is just about to fall from the tree, bush or vine. This makes great evolutionary sense as the purpose of the fruit is to propagate the species of the plant. The survival of the seed is most probable when the fruit contains the nutrition necessary to allow the seedling to develop. In addition, the sweetness and nutrition content of the fruit increase the likelihood that the fruit will be eaten by animals that scour the grasses for food. This helps both the animal and the plant as the animal gets food and the plant’s seed gets spread to different areas as it passes through the stool of the animal onto fertile ground elsewhere. The problem is that most conventional fruit is picked unripe and then ripened on the way to the store through artificial processes using ethylene. This makes for a fruit or vegetable that contains suboptimal levels of nutrients. A study performed at Oregon State University found that green blackberries contain only 74 mg/100 grams of anthocyanins (a plant compound/antioxidant known to protect the body from heart disease and cancer) compared to 317 mg/100 grams for vine ripened blackberries. (J Agric Food Chem. 2004 Sep 22;52(19):5907-13.) Research in Spain demonstrated that cherries picked prematurely contained one-half the level of vitamin C as cherries picked ripe (J Agric Food Chem. 2005 Apr 6;53(7):2741-5.)
In addition, due to the over farming of lands there is not enough nutrition in the soil to make for highly nutritive foods. For example, each time a watermelon is picked from the land some of the nutrition goes with it, after all, a fundamental law of physics is you cannot make something from nothing. Over time the soil gets depleted and the nutrition in the fruits and vegetables suffer. To make matters worse, the growers use a process of selective breeding to increase pith and water (the pith is the fibrous material such as the netting around the pulp of the orange and the white fluff just under the skin). This makes for big, attractive and heavy fruit with less vitamin and mineral content. These plant breeders lovingly refer to this process as the “dilution effect”. An example of this effect is with a very popular breed of broccoli called “Marathon” which is big and green and according to the USDA contains half the calcium and magnesium of other more nutritious hybrids of broccoli. All of this results in more weight and less nutrition.
In a 2004 study, scientists discovered that the nutrition content for 6 nutrients have declined significantly in fruits and vegetables since 1950. These nutrients include calcium, riboflavin, vitamin C, iron, potassium and protein. (J Am Coll Nutr. 2004 Dec;23(6):669-82) This study from the University of Texas evaluated the nutrient content over time of 43 garden crops. This study takes into account the effect of many different factors including ethylene ripening, the dilution effect, the use of commercial fertilizer, over farming, etc.
So is it possible to find nutrient dense fruits and vegetables? I believe so. Studies have shown that organic fruits and vegetables have more vitamins, minerals and antioxidants when compared to conventional produce. (J Agric Food Chem. 2002 Sep 11;50(19):5458-62; J Agric Food Chem. 2003 Feb 26;51(5):1237-41) Even if you regularly use organic produce, you will need to eat larger quantities of these fruits and vegetables to meet the vitamin, mineral and antioxidant needs of the body. I believe that people who meet these produce requirements are the exception rather than the rule.
One final argument on this subject doesn’t have to do with the nutrient content of the food as much as it has to do with nutrient needs of the body. Today’s body has to deal with an onslaught of toxic attack that we did not evolve on. Cleaning product, pollutions, stress and out gassing of carpets and paint all cause a withdrawal from the antioxidant and nutrient reserves of the body. We cannot assume that the nutrient needs of yesteryear apply to today! In other words, you need more nutrition today just to meet the minimum needs! Research has found that the great majority of the population does not meet the pitiful RDA requirements for one or more nutrients.
Argument: Doesn’t supplementation just cause expensive urine?
Answer: Whenever I debate the need for supplementation it seems that the first argument is always the same, “All that you are doing with nutritional supplements is making expensive urine.” This argument comes from the point that any excess of water soluble nutrients that you take in will be excreted through the urine. So if you take 1,000 mg of vitamin C and your body only uses 500 mg then you will kick out 500 mg of the vitamin C as “waste”. My answer to this is, better a surplus than a deficiency! When you supplement, you do run the risk of losing some extra nutrients in the urine. This argument can be made for those who eat plenty of fruits and vegetables as you will likely see more vitamins and minerals in their urine as well. Does this mean that you should not eat fruits and vegetables? In addition, if you want to talk about expensive urine let’s talk about the urine of people who take medications. You will find a significant amount of these medications in the urine and stool of these patients. So you choose- expensive urine full of vitamins or expensive urine full of medications.
Argument: We eat more food than most other countries, aren’t my nutrition needs being met?
Answer: I agree with the first statement regarding the quantity of food that we eat, however, I disagree with the second part of the statement which refers to the quality of food. Our society has built a food culture that creates a population of overfed and undernourished people. This means that calories are plentiful but nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals are deficient. This is the main reason why supplementation is so important. Starvation as it pertains to energy is not a common problem here in the United States, however, cellular starvation is a major problem. This means that the cells have all of the fuel that they require to function; however, the cells may not have the micronutrients necessary to be able to convert the fuel to energy and appropriately distribute that energy to various functions such as the immune and repair systems. This is like a car with a full tank of gas and no spark plugs. Remember, practically every study that has evaluated various vitamin and mineral levels in the blood have correlated higher levels of food nutrients with significantly better health. This means getting nutrients from whole food sources when possible and supporting with supplementation as an insurance policy.
Argument: There are no studies to support the need for supplementation.
Answer: This statement is just plain ridiculous! There is a tremendous amount of research on nutrition and its benefit to health. I have never understood how people make this comment when I am drowning in studies published in peer reviewed journals demonstrating the benefit and safety of nutritional supplementation. Search PubMed or Medline (the same search engine used by your doctor) on omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, coenzyme Q 10, vitamin E, vitamin C, etc. You will be blown away by the results that you get. As far as safety goes, according to the 2005 annual report in the journal Clinical Toxicity, which evaluates the reports from 61 poison control centers in the U.S., out of 53 billion doses of supplemental vitamin supplements there was not even one death reported. Tragically, Tylenol was not so lucky being responsible for numerous adverse events and deaths.
I have dedicated my life to the study of longevity and, more importantly, to the study of vitality. My definite purpose is to design a system of living that allows people like you and me to live long, energetic lives full of LIFE ENERGY! To accomplish this goal, a system is needed that will prevent disease and promote energy production, circulation, repair and rejuvenation throughout our entire lives. It is my belief that this goal can be met with a healthy diet full of fresh, raw, organic, healthy foods. It is also my belief that with each day that science “revolutionizes” our lives and food industries this becomes harder and harder. Although it is possible to live long and healthy lives without supplementation, it is less likely today than ever before and the majority of us need supplements to meet our body’s needs.