“I recommend you take a fiber supplement.”
This was the advice I was given from a doctor who specializes in gastrointestinal (GI) disorders that I saw back in 2005. I had just moved to San Francisco to start my new research position at a biopharmaceutical company. I had been struggling with severe cramping, gas, bloating, and constipation for many years and wanted to feel better. I knew that fiber helped alleviate constipation, but I found myself wondering, Why take a supplement when you can eat the real thing?
Even though I had all this training in the molecular life sciences, I had not yet connected my knowledge of organic chemistry to human nutrition and my own health. I started taking the fiber supplement as directed, but it wasn’t long before I decided that instead, I was going to modify my daily diet to include enough fiber from whole foods and to eliminate other foods that were potentially causing the GI discomfort.
Why not just take the supplement or pill? Isn’t it easier and more effective? Can this reductionist approach to food and health actually be better than eating the food components as nature intended? The answer is (usually) no. Unfortunately, the ideology of “nutritionism” is a flawed and oversimplified understanding of how these so-called “nutrients” create a healthy human body (hint: foods are not merely the sum of their nutrient parts). It is just a start for modern science to try and tease out the complexities of human nutrition and human health.
From my extensive experience in medicinal chemistry and drug discovery research, it is not beneficial to turn to a pill, especially for your daily nutrients. Unless you know that you have a specific deficiency that needs supplementation for a medical condition, I advise eating real whole foods instead of taking supplements.
Here are my top four reasons why:
1. Many “health claims” lack scientific, clinical, or epidemiological data.
The term “supplement” encompasses a huge number of distinct compounds and mixtures containing such ingredients as vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, and enzymes, with each having its own unique physical and chemical properties. Supplement manufacturers are allowed to make “health claims” on product labels that describe a relationship between a specific dietary nutrient and a health-related condition; however, the “FDA is not authorized to review dietary supplement products for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed.”
Although some supplements have been more rigorously tested for specific conditions, many supplements have not. Also, it is important to remember that just because it is “natural” does not mean it is safe to take in a supplement form. Every molecule that we eat (a molecule is a term for two or more atoms bound together)—whether it is from food, herbs, supplements, or pharmaceutical drugs—has the ability to serve as a chemical messenger inside the body, interfering with important biological processes that may either help us or hurt us.
2. Too much of a good thing: highly concentrated doses of a single nutrient.
Whole foods contain hundreds to thousands of components in small amounts—things like fiber, protein, fats, carbohydrates, and other bioactive compounds like antioxidants or specific vitamins and minerals that make that food unique.
When we eat nutrients in their natural form, it’s nearly impossible to eat too much of any one component. When considering supplements, we should be aware that often, the pill contains a single active nutrient in a highly concentrated dose—a dose that may have been set by faulty science or no science at all. I often see vitamin and supplement bottles with amounts listed on the label that far exceed the suggested daily value, so remember: more is not always better!
Every chemist knows it’s the dose that makes the poison. Using a supplement appropriately to correct a nutrient deficiency is one thing, but overuse can be a potential risk to human health in various ways, especially in children. A recent study shows that “people who take more dietary supplements than needed tend to have a higher risk of developing cancer,” according to Tim Byers, associate director for cancer prevention and control at the University of Colorado Cancer Center, who also studies supplements.
Because supplements come in different formulations, which can greatly affect their absorption into the body, consumers must be especially careful to ensure they are getting the proper dose (for examples with magnesium see: J. Clin. Invest. 1991, 88, 396-402). Furthermore, when two or more supplements and/or pharmaceutical drugs are administered together, their pharmacokinetic properties (i.e. absorption, metabolism, and clearance rates) can change, which can ultimately interfere with the compound’s ability to function safely and as intended.
While some supplements will get into the body without any issues, others will have poor absorption and will pass through the body untouched. This can lead to GI discomfort and intestinal inflammation as the body tries to excrete this foreign material. A popular example of this is with the molecule curcumin, a single component of turmeric root that has been clinically studied for its anti-inflammatory and anticancer effects. It has essentially zero bioavailability in humans when taken as a powder in a pill form without a special formulation. It is misleading to consumers who think they are getting what is listed on the bottle.
3. Isolated nutrients in the form of a pill.
Supplements are not the solution to make up for an unhealthy diet. Eating nutrients in the form of a pill bypasses the first stop in the digestive processes: the mouth. There are receptors on the tongue that turn on signals downstream in the digestive tract, which begin to prepare the body to better absorb nutrients. This can include certain enzymes and transporter proteins that help with metabolism and absorption. When nutrients bypass the intelligence in the tongue, the body and brain can get confused, leading to poor absorption and misfiring chemical pathways, as this is not how the body naturally takes in nutrients.
4. Poor manufacturing processes.
When a pharmaceutical is approved by the FDA for consumer use, it means that the pill must be made in an inspected facility using a strict set of guidelines known as “Good Manufacturing Practices” (GMPs), to ensure quality and purity. Although some supplement manufacturers willingly register to be in compliance with GMPs, it is not required for companies to abide by these manufacturing practices in our country.
If you are going to take a supplement, make sure to do your homework, researching the specific manufacturer and the specific nutrient you are planning to take in a supplement form. There could be significant impurities in the supplement or the pill could even be a completely different compound altogether than what is listed on the label. Consumers must note that international producers have even less regulatory oversight and should be even more cautious with certain supplements produced overseas.
How to create a diet that needs no supplementation.
There is not one diet that fits all. However, a diet based on organic whole foods with fruits and vegetables, fish, lean meats, beans, good fats, and whole grains will serve most of us. Start by examining your own daily diet and do “food experiments” to determine which foods are best for you. In my own “food experiments” (always ongoing), I eventually found that I needed to make just a few key modifications to eliminate the need for a fiber supplement and to feel good on a daily basis.
Eliminate fast food and processed foods that are loaded with food additives, refined sugars, and bad fats, and eat a big salad every day—leafy greens are an excellent source of fiber and other nutrients. Drink more water, a relatively simple way for anyone to improve movement through the GI tract and help with gas, bloating, and constipation. Lower your intake of gluten and other complex carbohydrates like white potatoes and rice.
These dietary guidelines are applicable to many people as a good starting point for creating a nutritious diet that needs no supplementation.
How you eat is also important. Try practicing mindfulness-based eating, which includes taking smaller bites and eating more slowly so that things can digest more easily. This will also naturally help to reduce portion sizes.
I really put this “whole foods diet” to the test recently with my own pregnancy. Ask almost any medical doctor today, and they will recommend a prenatal vitamin on the first visit of pregnancy, if not beforehand. I confidently chose not to take a prenatal vitamin to supplement my diet during my pregnancy.
Being a Nutrition Professor, I was aware of the five main “nutrients” that science has identified as being especially important for the growing fetus and mother: iron, folate (folic acid), calcium, good fats, and protein. I researched what specific whole foods would deliver these nutrients and modified my already well-balanced diet accordingly. This diet included generous servings of spinach, lentils, avocados, oranges, grass-fed beef, peanut butter, and broccoli (all organic of course).
I was confident we would have no prenatal problems, and my daughter, now nearly eight months old, is a beautiful and healthy baby girl. Neither she nor I have any known deficiencies, health problems, or developmental issues. In fact, the doctors were impressed with how big she was when she was born (7 lbs, 1 oz), her strong lungs, and her excellent developmental progress so far (babies born here at 9,000-foot elevation in the Rocky Mountains where we currently live are often smaller and require oxygen for weeks after birth).
Author: Dr. Lisa Julian, Ph.D.
Image: Author’s own
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Yoli Ramazzina