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Vitamins Vs Real Food – A Few Home Truths

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I have always supplemented my diet with a multi-vitamin/mineral and a few other favourites such as Omega Oils, Green Tea Extract and Glocusamine Sulphate…but reading further about such synthesised products has caused me to have a re-think.

Have I just been throwing my money away, boosting the profits of health companies, or have these supplements been topping up my diet?

Round 1 – Nature vs. Nurture
Leafy greens, fresh fruit and nuts are all wise food choices that offer us plenty vitamins and minerals. However, are we guaranteed to get all of that goodness when compared to a synthesised pill?

The bioavailabilty of vitamins and minerals to our bodies varies for each food type. Taking leafy greens for example – they are packed with thousands of phytochemicals and phytonutrients. These form part of the whole package of goodness that comes with whole natural food sources. With some laboratory evidence suggesting that these phytochemicals can help reduce the risk of cancer, this seems to be a big advantage of natural foods over man-made vitamin pills, which cannot synthesise such a combination!

Natural whole foods seem to be cleverly ‘constructed’ to enable our bodies to absorb the goodness on offer. Calcium, Magnesium and other minerals are best absorbed when they are bound to citrate or amino acid chelate. This is just one example of an effective chemical combination which vegetables can readily provide.

Assuming that you have spent a bit more and bought some lovely fresh vegetables though, are your cooking methods about to destroy all those phytochemicals? Potentially, yes – certain cooking methods are worse for nutrient loss than others.The longer a food is exposed to heat, the greater the nutrient loss. Boiling in hot water typically creates more nutrient loss than steaming (assuming all other factors are equal). I was shocked to read that boiling carrots, for example, may result in 79% nutrient loss.

Round 2 – Supplements for simplicity but what about quality?
The health supplement market is a massive one and has thrived on our lifestyles becoming increasingly chaotic – meaning we demand healthy products that are convenient. For example, you can pick up a multivitamin with each tablet costing only a few pence – great you may think! I can get my ’5 a day’ for a fraction of the price of buying fresh vegetables. But then again, shouldn’t you invest in your body? You are ingesting these tablets after all. It’s funny how we sometimes buy the best quality clothes we can afford but cut corners on our diet.

It is arguable that the quality of the supplements can definitely impact its utility to our bodies. If you are going to supplement regulalrly however, some studies suggest you should save your money – one study testing 38 different vitamin brands concluded that inexpensive multivitamins often performed as well or better than comparable expensive options. Marketing may suggest that budget brands are less likely to deliver but expensive brands have been found to fail lab tests for containing impurities. Some studies suggest that upto 90% of the cheaper synthetic vitamins pass straight through us, with cheaper options being!

Ideally, you should look for an authentication of quality marking on your vitamin packaging – in America for example, the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) provides quality testing and monitoring of dietary supplements. A supplement company can display a USP seal of approval on the supplement packaging only if all USP tests are passed. The supplement industry is quite loosely regulated, so be wary of strong marketing!

The Final Round
In an ideal world, I do not think that I would be supplementing my diet with any synthesised vitamins or minerals because we can get the whole spectrum from a varied and natural diet…The reality is that man-made supplements (e.g. multi-vitamins) can help to make up for any shortfalls in our diets. It is all in the name really, ‘supplement’ means to add to, not to replace. So you really shouldn’t be relying on multi-vitamins to provide you with the majority of your vitamin and mineral needs. Even when we are lacking in a particular nutrient, our bodies can be remarkably good at balancing themselves out, so unless you have obvious signs of a nutrient deficiency, chances are you’re diet and body are taking care of themselves.

When it comes to supplements, I would be most likely to consider spending on the following: Cod Liver Oil (high in Omega 3, Vitamin A and D) / Vitamin D / Vitamin B12 (especially if vegetarian).