SUPPLEMENTS - THE MAGIC BULLETS?

We’re trying to heal ourselves one vitamin pill at a time. But have you ever tried cutting beta-carotene out of a carrot? Well, it sure hasn’t stopped the supplement industry from trying…


Let’s talk B A L A N C E. Nutritional science calls it homeostasis – the body’s tendency to work toward maintaining a stable, functional equilibrium between all its bodily systems, starting with every single cell. And this careful balance, we call H E A L T H. The resources used to maintain homeostasis are the foods we eat. Food is as fundamental to our survival as oxygen, but while we breathe the same air, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to food. But just as we wouldn’t park ourselves in front of a chimney, we need to start taking food seriously – look beyond melted cheese and chocolate cake – and see it for what it actually is: L I F E. It’s time to recognise that health is more than a generic expression, like “eat a good diet”; “everything in moderation”; “take the stairs instead of a lift”. Unfortunately, most of us struggle with translating this and applying practically into every day life.

Inherently, we all know that vegetables and fruit are good for us, but nowadays we’re brought up thinking of food in terms of the individual elements instead of a whole: we eat carrots for vitamin A, oranges for vitamin C and drink milk for calcium and vitamin D. So as long as we enjoy these particular foods, we’re happy to get our nutrients naturally from them. As for the bland cauliflower and smelly Brussels sprouts, we feel perfectly at peace skipping them – as long as we supplement with the corresponding nutrients. Sounds familiar? Enter: supplements.

Supplements are a type of drugs, and pharmaceutical researchers try to isolate and determine the chemical structures of the “active agents” responsible for healing properties of particular plants. Unfortunately, the newly synthesised chemical structures are out of context, and prove problematic for our body, which often results in unindented and undesirable side effects. Some studies have shown that certain supplements or combinations thereof (e.g.: supplemental vitamins A + E, as well as the isolated Omega-3 fatty acids in a pill) can even lead to health issues. But above all, the danger of increasing consumption of supplements lies in our love affair with the seductive “magic bullet” which lets us believe we’re off the hook when it comes to eating right.

Conversely, let’s look at actual plant food (fruit + veg + grains + legumes): the nutrients exists in precise proportions that nature had in mind for us, acting in concert and setting in motion hundreds of chemical and biological reactions far beyond our grasp. The (often unpredictable) pathway taken by a nutrient branches, and branches further, and branches further again, leading it through a complex maze of reactions to fulfil multitudes of functions – all of which is totally controlled by our body. The proportion of a nutrient that is digested, absorbed, and provided to trillion various cells is dependent on its availability and your body’s need for that nutrient at that moment in time. Therefore, we must be mindful of dosing up on isolated nutrients, which might be left hanging around in the body without being excreted (contrary to common belief).

This is exactly the issue with the synthetic form of vitamin C, where ingesting 1000 milligrams of it orally does not guarantee its full absorption or desired effect of combating cold and flu. The problem stems from our misunderstanding of wholistic nutrition which leads us to asking the wrong questions: instead of “How much vitamin C are we getting?” we should be focusing on “Which foods should we be eating to support our bodies’ ability to maintain health?” (tip: stock up on dark leafy greens, peppers, kiwi and berries and you’re all set!)

Another important vitamin (and the current darling of the mainstream nutritional health world) is E. Since first discovered in green leafy vegetables in 1922, this anti-oxidant has been proven integral to our cardiovascular health and widely hailed as the “wonder nutrient”. And rightly so. However, just as with all nutrients, it seldom acts independently and its potency is vastly influenced by others: selenium, amino-acids and essential fatty-acids (to name just a few). Whats more, what we usually call “vitamin E” is actually a family of eight similar varieties (called analogs), which vary in potency and the tissues they target. So removing vitamin E from its context within plant food is like sending a general into battle without any troops. Battle lost…

And another thing… In order to ingest 1000 milligrams of vitamin C you would have to eat 8 Cantaloupe melons, while 1 pill of vitamin E equals to crunching 1670 almonds! There’s a reason why our stomachs are small and equipped with “fullness” censors ready to send you signals of satiety, which means the food you ingest (provided it’s nutritious) is enough to supply your body with everything it needs, and no more.

All this might come as a surprise, but we simply forget that our bodies have naturally evolved to eat whole-foods so they know how to deal with the various combinations and interactions operating inside. Food is complicated! It’s composed of digestive enzymes, dietary fibre, nutrients, fats and various vitamins and minerals which all come as a package deal. Furthermore, these nutrients have often been found to go in pairs and enhance each other: vitamin A likes vitamin D and E; vitamin E likes to hold hands with vitamin C; copper interacts with iron and zinc, potassium with calcium, and so it goes.

Sadly, we seem to have lost our nutritional compass! In recent years, various unsubstantiated diet fads have led us to believe that fruit is packed with sugar and will make us unwell, even fat! Result: an obese and undernourished society who avoid fruit and pop pills instead. Let’s take a closer look: a banana might be high in fructose, but much more importantly it is a very good source of vitamin B6 and C, manganese, potassium, fibre, biotin and copper – all pre-packaged neatly together to enter your digestive system as a whole and unravel in your small intestine, ready for absorption, in required quantities – the feared fructose included. Clearly, that’s not the same as swallowing a spoonful of worthless and harmful processed white sugar.

So it’s true what they say: an apple a day keeps the doctor away. But if there is one thing you can take away from this article, it is this: the whole apple is far more than the sum of its parts! Food is a package deal, and no multivitamin in the world can give you what a varied whole-food diet can, as nature intended. In spite of fortified cereals and readily-available supplements, we’re still getting sicker and sicker, and fading faster and faster. Healthy eating is not a list of individual nutrients that must be consumed in specific, regimented quantities and parts – have you ever tried cutting beta-carotene out of a carrot? Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop the multi-billion dollar supplement industry from trying…

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