Do You Really Need to Take Supplements to Be Healthy?
Updated: May 14, 2018
An Exploration into Getting the Nutrients You Need From Food Alone
This is a question I get asked all the time by clients, family members and friends. Do I really need to take supplements? Do I have to take a multivitamin? Shouldn’t I get everything I need from food? I think all of these questions are important and valid and as a nutritionist, I have asked myself all these same questions about food.
So here are some of my thoughts on the issue of health, nutrition and supplementation from the eyes of a nutritionist. When I first started studying nutrition, I absolutely believed that we should get all the nutrients we needs from food. Just eat a whole foods diet and that’s what you need to be healthy, right?
Well unfortunately the answer is not that simple and it’s a topic that deserves some serious exploration. As I learned more about nutrition and the role of nutrients in the body, the more I learned exactly how difficult it is to really get all that we need to be healthy from our diets alone.
But I Have a Great Diet!
“But I have a great diet!” or “I eat tons of fruits and vegetables”, these are things I hear all the time from my clients, and I think it is great that they are making the effort to eat a healthy whole foods oriented diet. In fact, I want all of my clients and loved ones to be a eating a healthy whole foods diet all the time, but I also realize there are factors that might make this challenging to do for all people.
Some of the primary factors that get in the way of us getting the nutrients we need from food are:
1. Poor availability, perhaps a particular nutrient is not abundantly found in common food sources.
2. Poor nutrient absorbability, maybe the nutrient is highly available in whole foods, but it may not stay in the body for very long or may not be easily absorbed.
3. Environmental exposures, our everyday exposure to toxins and pollutants can put stress on the body, creating a more substantial nutrient need.
4. Common nutrient depletors, this is a wide category of factors which include things like medications, specialized diets or particular health or disease states which drain the body of specific nutrients.
Let’s Take a Closer Look
Probably at the top of my list is the low mineral availability in most of our food sources, including whole, organic foods. Minerals are nutrients involved in many important chemical reactions in the body. There are major minerals which you may have heard of like calcium, magnesium and zinc and some lesser known, called trace minerals like boron and chromium. Minerals come from the soil, and eating food grown from the soil is the primary way we get minerals into our body. Unfortunately, the soil in the United Sates is greatly depleted of minerals from years of factory farming. This has left the soil greatly depleted of many important nutrients, like magnesium for example.
Magnesium deficiency is probably one of the most common deficiencies I see in my practice, even amongst those that have really great diets. Magnesium is found in some fruits, veggies and whole grains, but the combination of poor soil availability, common actions that deplete magnesium and the inability to eat enough of the foods to meet basic requirements, drives this abundant deficiency. Magnesium is responsible for over 300 chemical reactions in the body and is central to energy production, relaxing the central nervous system, improving sleep and regulating blood sugar. As lack of energy, stress, poor sleep and blood sugar regulation are common problems, you can see how quickly magnesium deficiency can occur.
Although you may be eating foods that contain magnesium in great abundance, you may not be getting enough from food alone to meet your basic needs for this vital nutrient. If you are struggling with any of the signs associated with magnesium deficiency such as anxiety, muscle cramping and tension, poor sleep, lack of energy and altered blood sugar, than you may need to start looking for sources of magnesium outside of your food alone and supplementation is one way to do this.
Vitamin D is another very common deficiency. Vitamin D is not abundant in many foods. It is found in a few foods like mushrooms, raw milk, eggs and certain of types of fish, so difficult to get the level you need from food alone. It is also available from sunlight exposure and many of my clients will say, “But can’t I get all the D I need from sun?” Well the answer to that is yes and no.
Yes, you can get vitamin D from the sun, but depending upon where you live in North America you may not be able to get enough vitamin D from the sun alone year round. For example, where I live in Northern California (yes, sunny California), there is not enough of the right type of sun exposure to get vitamin D from the sun in the late fall and winter. But what about summer sun exposure, can’t you get vitamin D then? Yes, you can but are you wearing sun screen, do you work indoors during peak sunlight hours? Then the answer is no, you may not be getting the vitamin D you need from the sun.
You also need to take into account your personal vitamin D level. Depending upon where your current level is, you may have a higher need for vitamin D that can only be obtained through supplementation. Luckily vitamin D is fat soluble, meaning that your body stores it. Once you get your vitamin D to optimal levels (found out via blood work through your doctor or health practitioner) then you can most likely maintain your level through a combination of regular sun exposure, foods naturally high in vitamin D and proper supplementation.
The B vitamins are another category where I commonly see deficiencies. Unlike vitamin D, the B complex vitamins are pretty abundant and accessible through your food. They are largely found in whole grain foods, legumes, nuts and seeds, some animal meats and eggs, vegetables and certain fruits. Most healthy eaters are eating these types of whole foods regularly, and may be getting a vast array of the B complex vitamins. But here is something you may not know about B vitamins, they are water soluble, meaning that the body does not retain them. So when you eat these wonderful foods that contain the B complex vitamins, they go in, are used up quickly and then are rapidly removed from the body.
What does this mean in terms of health? Well if you are experiencing high levels of stress or have high energy needs, then you may not consistently be getting the B vitamins that your body needs. Many common medications are associated with B vitamin depletion including birth control pills, anti-depressant medications, aspirin and NSAIDS, acid blocking medications, certain types of blood pressure and asthma medications and corticosteroids. These medications are pervasive in our culture and regular users of these meds may have a higher need for B vitamin supplementation, even if their diet is great.
And what about those of us who don’t have a great diet? The sad reality is that many people don’t eat fruits, vegetables and whole grains frequently enough to get the right amount of B vitamins. Even my healthiest eaters may not be eating enough quantity of these foods to get the amounts they need to achieve optimal levels. Those with specialized diets, such as those who are grain free or perhaps not consuming animal foods, may need to supplement with certain B vitamins to keep their bodies functioning at optimal levels.
As you can see, it is not as easy as you may think, to meet all of your nutrient needs via food alone. I absolutely strive to have all of my clients eating a healthy whole foods diet, where they are getting as many of their vitamins and minerals from their foods as possible. I also know there are many instances when getting your nutrients from food alone may not be possible and why supplementation with specific types of nutrients may be needed to optimize health.
Do you want to learn more about how optimized supplementation can benefit you and improve your health? Work with me to find out about your specific nutrient needs and how to incorporate the right combinations of foods and supplements for your body type and health goals.