Most of us have taken vitamins for longer than we can remember. We started with chewable versions; later, we graduated to adult multivitamins. Over time, we adopted more specific applications: vitamin D when the days got shorter; vitamin C during cold season; vitamin E for antioxidant protection.
These are all sensible approaches, but newer research is showing we may not be reaping the health benefits we expected. Though our bodies need vitamins, synthetic isolated varieties may not be the right source of nutrients we require most.
It’s not necessarily that such supplements are substandard or impure. In fact, they may be too pure. We’re finding that vitamins work better when they're taken with other nutrients that are found together naturally in foods. Isolating them often reduces their effectiveness.
However, this understanding goes beyond optimal vitamin delivery. Whole, unprocessed foods offer hundreds of unique compounds such as indoles, terpenes, organosulfides, isothiocyanates and many others that promote health in ways that scientists are just beginning to understand.
For example, flavonoids were originally thought to work by exerting antioxidant effects in the body. However, research suggests that flavonoids primarily work to influence gene expression and cell signaling. One flavonoid called luteolin — which is found in foods like celery, parsley and thyme — has been shown to inhibit cell signaling in colon cancer.
These and other studies reinforce the idea that whole, unprocessed food should be our primary source of nutrients.
When to Supplement?
No amount of vitamin supplementation can compensate for poor eating. However, does a good diet negate the need for supplements? This depends on the vitamin and how the body absorbs it, as well as the nutritional needs of each individual. Generally, I recommend obtaining vitamins from food and food-based products, which can include powdered super-fruits and vegetables and other nutritional supplements made from botanicals and extracts.
But there are exceptions. The best way to get vitamin D is to go out into the sun — just don’t let yourself burn. Also, specific B vitamins can be difficult for some people to absorb from their food. For example, many elderly people have trouble absorbing B12, so a natural supplement can help. Absorption can be an issue for vegetarians. The body doesn't take in plant-based iron as well as meat-based, and this should be accounted for in any vegetarian diet plan. Vegetarians also need good sources of B12 and folate. In such instances I often recommend whole food-based vitamins and concentrates.
Foods Come Out Ahead
One complicated aspect of the food vs. supplement debate is how we define nutrition. I tend to favor a more universal definition that includes a wide variety of distinct phytonutrients and other health-supporting compounds that are obtained from a diverse, unprocessed diet.
One good example is fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids. While we can get the omega-3s from supplements, there are other nutrients we miss by not eating fish, such as selenium and vitamin D. We also risk losing the enzymes that come with the whole food, impairing absorption and overall nutritional value.
Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, kale, etc.) are particularly rich in vitamins and minerals, but it’s their unique phytonutrients that really set them apart. One family of cancer-fighting compounds, glucosinolates, is abundant in broccoli and is also incorporated in supplements. The trouble is, by isolating glucosinolates from important enzymes in the whole plant, we reduce their absorption and effectiveness. Researchers at Oregon State University found that the body absorbs five times less glucosinolate from supplements than it does from raw or lightly steamed broccoli.
Blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and other fruits are also rich in vitamin C, as well as flavonoids and ellagic acid.
Onions, garlic and related foods provide organosulfides, which can help neutralize cancer-causing compounds. They also thin the blood, which can prevent heart disease.
Carotenes are found in bright orange and yellow vegetables — tomatoes, oranges, peppers, carrots and can help fight cancer. These vegetables are also good sources for lycopene and other antioxidants, including vitamin C.
Though not as common as the foods mentioned above, chia seeds have a fantastic health profile. They help modulate glucose metabolism, lower the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein and decrease blood pressure.
Some forms of algae, such as spirulina and chlorella, are remarkable nutrition sources, rich in antioxidants, minerals and B vitamins. They also have antiviral and antibacterial properties, and can function as a prebiotic to support healthy probiotic populations in the body.
Eat More White
While brightly colored fruits and vegetables should be central to our diets, researchers also make a case for eating more “white” produce; i.e., pale-colored foods such as turnips, cauliflower, and mushrooms that contain fiber, minerals and other nutrients.
Medicinal mushrooms such as reishi and cordyceps for example, have powerful nutritional and therapeutic properties. Mushrooms are rich in vitamins D and B complex, as well as potassium, calcium, iron, selenium, magnesium and antioxidants. Mushroom cell walls also contain unique carbohydrates, including beta-glucans, which have a strong impact on the immune system, energizing macrophages, T-cells and natural killer (NK) cells. Like adaptogenic herbs, mushrooms work to modulate immune response, keeping it from underreacting or overreacting. In other words, they can help fight off disease or tame an autoimmune reaction.
Vitamins, by definition, are nutrients the body cannot synthesize by itself, so it’s important that we find the most effective methods to supply them. Once again, whole food comes up as the best medicine. By setting a nutritional foundation with an abundance of diverse, unprocessed foods, we can then add targeted, natural supplements to enhance health even further, depending on our needs.
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