Nutritional supplements are hugely popular. I confess I take several myself.
And for many reasons, they make good sense. Our diets today are not what they used to be. Refined carbohydrates abound; “refined” meaning “stripped of all nutrients.” We can eat calorie after calorie at any restaurant, fast food or no, and get few if any nutrients in the process.
And it’s not only carbohydrates that have changed. The way we raise beef today, the balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is not what it used to be. (Grass-fed beef has much more omega-3 and much less omega-6 than the corn-fed beef we eat far more of today. It also has far less saturated fat.) Fish may make up a smaller part of many of our diets today because many are high in methylmercury, dangerous for children and pregnant women and ill-advised for the rest of us So we don’t get as much of the nutrients common in fish that we used to get.
But there’s a hitch. Supplements, when tested in scientific studies, often don’t work. At least, not as well as the same levels of nutrients in whole foods.
I know this, and yet I still take them. Because there doesn’t seem to be much harm, and there may be some benefit.
But if the supplements contain the nutrients they claim (and I believe they do), how come they don’t fully work?
I’m starting to get a couple clues. For one, there’s Michael Pollan’s axiom: Eat the way your ancestors ate. They survived millenia without incurring the “diseases of civilization” that plague modern society; and so they may have been doing it right all along. This means, to Pollan, that we should not only eat primarily whole or minimally processed foods (as would have existed a thousand years ago) but in pairings in which we’ve traditionally eaten them.
What does this have to do with supplements? For one, supplements are anything but “whole.” We’ve stripped the nutrients from food (or certain nonorganic sources) and packaged them in pills. The nutrients may be there, but the rest of the food isn’t. And there may well be something about that food other than those nutrients themselves that allows us to actually use the nutrients once we’re in our bodies.
For example, we know you can eat endless supplies of calcium, but your bones can’t use it unless you also take Vitamin D. But there may well be many other connections we haven’t even started to learn about. After all, though we know supplements don’t work as well as whole food, we don’t know why. Until we understand why, it’ll be hard to fix the problem.
Second, it seems that certain whole foods work better when eaten together than when eaten alone. Pollan tells us that Mexicans traditionally eat rise with beans, and that beans may help us fully use the nutrients in rice and rice may help us fully use the nutrients in beans.
Nutrition professor Marion Nestle has pointed out that the antioxidant lutein, found in both spinach and eggs, is more usable by our body when it comes from eggs than spinach. This is because lutein is fat-soluble, and while eggs have ample fat, spinach doesn’t. But combine spinach with olive oil, which is largely monounsaturated fat, and voila: you’re getting the full effect of the lutein in spinach.
If sometimes even whole foods can’t be fully utilized without certain food pairings, how can we expect vitamin and mineral supplements, when taken alone, to work well at all?
Maybe the answer won’t be found in a bottle. But it will be fascinating to watch as we learn more about how these processes work. Maybe we’ll develop better supplements in the future; or maybe we’ll just revert to eating the foods the earth has provided us for millenia.