The supplement debate

To supplement or not? This is the question.

Words Ben Warren. Illustration Janelle Barone, Makers MGMT

Walk into most health food shops and you’ll see a wall of supporting nutritional products from the common multi-vitamin to obscure extractions from seaweed, begging the question; do we need to supplement or do these products just give you expensive urine?

The importance of nutrients for human health and function is well established, we need a full range of vitamins and minerals for our bodies to function. 

The minimum requirements of a nutrient, to not get a disease from a deficiency, is called the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA). While it’s obviously important to meet the RDAs to avoid diseases, ideally we should be aiming for the suggested optimal nutritional allowance (SONA) to allow for the whole body ‘optimal’ function rather than just avoiding disease.

For many years I didn’t supplement my diet with nutrients believing if you ate a good diet, you’d get everything you need. During my master’s degree in holistic nutrition this notion was shattered. 

I entered my ‘very healthy’ diet into a nutrition analysis software to be shocked to see I was below the RDA for five key nutrients. This led me to research nutrient deficiencies and I was shocked to find many in the New Zealand population. For example, one study found 84 per cent of New Zealanders deficient in vitamin D (at 80 nmol); a recent study found that more than two-thirds of Kiwis over 50 had a vitamin C deficiency; while the government are re-considering fortifying bread with folic acid as another recent study showed many newly pregnant women are not getting enough folate.

After many years of research I consider the cause of deficiencies to be multifactorial. Firstly, I believe in the modern world, we are overfed but undernourished. Obviously we should be focusing on fresh whole foods as much as possible and even adding in nutrient dense animal foods such as liver to boost our vitamin status. Research also shows that due to modern farming techniques, nutrient depletion in the soil and excess nitrogen use, fruit and vegetables may have less nutrients than they used to. Modern food conveniences also contribute to nutritional deficiencies as we no longer eat in season – instead food is produced and shipped around the world to be available throughout the year and, unfortunately, the older the food, the less water soluble nutrients, like B vitamins and vitamin C, it contains.

Stress increases nutrient need and many of us in the modern world live a high-stress lifestyle, requiring more nutrients to maintain function. We are also living in the most toxic times humans have ever lived. Fortunately, our bodies can deal with many toxins. However, the pathways in the liver that detoxify our bodies require nutrients and therefore, again, we have an increased need for nutrients.

So what about the possible toxicity or side effects of too many nutrients? Nutrients are not pharmaceuticals and are by nature safe and many have no known toxicity levels. 

Relatively speaking, there are a small number of research articles showing the negative effects of micronutrient supplementation. However, these research articles often involve the use of synthetic vitamin A or synthetic vitamin E. It has been proposed that the negative effects are because the synthetic form of the fat soluble vitamin is actually blocking the natural form and therefore creating an increased ‘deficiency’ state in the body.

If you do choose to support your body with nutrients it’s important to buy a high-quality product. Avoid products using cheap, poorly absorbed ingredients like zinc oxide. Look for a product that has a complete range of ingredients (Vitamins, A, E, D, K, C, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B9, B12 and minerals), providing at least 100 per cent of the RDA.

Ben Warren is a nutrition and holistic health expert.

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