The market for supplements is booming, and the big pharmaceutical firms have been pushing this agenda for a long time. The argument for taking supplements is that one can never get enough vitamins and trace elements – this sounds somehow logical. The question that we're addressing today is whether or not supplements are really so healthy.
Driven by interest in profit and the hope to improve upon the work of nature, scientists and the corporations they work for have developed thousands of products that contain concentrated individual nutrients. The principle is simple enough: they are trying first and foremost to develop a pharmacologically effective ingredient that mimics its natural counterpart in order to manufacture it in massive quantities and then be able to sell it to consumers as a "potent natural health supplement".
Dietary supplements contain isolated nutrients that are synthetically produced and highly concentrated
Apparently these concentrated nutrients can compensate for the negative effects of our bad habits, and easily resolve any healthy problems we might have, moreover with zero side effects. Companies are motivated by huge profits when they put these supplements on the market, even if they don't actually work. The people who buy these products are simply hoping for a simple way to rid themselves of their health problems, and this yields consistent sales for the manufacturers. Still, one has to ask whether there is any scientific evidence, valid research or healed patients to support these theoretical benefits.
Is deficiency really the problem, or is it more about excess?
Dietary supplement can eliminate deficiencies, but they do nothing in the case of excess nutrients. Is the problem really that we're not getting enough nutrients? How many of the people you know are suffering with illnesses related to vitamin deficiency, for example scurvy (caused by a lack of vitamin C), beriberi (from not enough vitamin B1) or pellagra (due to insufficient niacin)? How many people do you know who are suffering with a fatty acid or protein deficiency? The number is most likely zero. Let's turn the question around: how many people do you know who suffer with conditions related to excessive nutrient intake, for example too much fat, cholesterol, salt or protein? What about simply consuming too many calories? There's not a lot of risk in guessing that we all know more people who are overweight or have a heart condition, arterial sclerosis, high blood pressure, arthritis or diabetes than people who have diseases related to dietary deficiencies.
A lot of research suggests exercising care when taking supplements
Two respected studies from 2008 came to the conclusion that beta-carotene, vitamin A and vitamin E taken alone or in combination with other antioxidants increases the mortality rate. A number of random-controlled studies have shown that dietary supplements generally have no effect, or they can even be harmful. We are not talking about small studies here, for example with only a few hundred participants, rather we are looking at major efficacy studies involving more than 20,000 test subjects, or at least including many thousands of people.
Only plants provide complex nutrient packets in a form that is available for the body to use
No dietary supplement in the world can duplicate the perfect makeup of plants. Every healthy thing found in fruits and vegetables is 100% natural and in a form that is uniquely able to support good health. All plants contain a mix of thousands of proteins, fat, carbohydrates, fibre, vitamins, minerals, and other phytochemicals (i.e. chemical compound made by plants). Through the process of chewing, swallowing and digesting, we take in all of the nutrients they provide. The nutrients are absorbed by the body through the digestive tract, entering the blood stream and nourishing the billions of cells in the body. The substances that have been dissolved in the blood pass through the walls of cells and enter the cytoplasm that is inside the cell. This complicated interplay between the foods we eat and our bodies has yet to be fully researched. Scientists do recognise that there is a sensitive balance at play. If this balance is thrown off through an over-supply or under-supply of one or more nutrients – for example in relation to taking vitamins – the cellular metabolism can become unbalanced.
Think critically about the use of dietary supplements. Just as with medication, consulting with a physician or other health care professional and agreeing on some form of limited use is sensible, for example vitamin D for older people or vitamin B12 for vegetarians. We recommend that you do not thoughtlessly take artificial vitamins. The story is different for natural remedies like St. John's wort, ginko, glucosamine, barley grass, ginger, etc. Real natural remedies are not made up of isolated nutrients, rather they are available in their natural form and taken as capsules or included in the diet.
Source: Dr. John A. McDougall, The Starch Solution, chapter 11: Just to Be on the Safe Side, Stay Away from Supplements, Rodale Books 2013
“Dr. John McDougall is the dean of medical practitioners in nutrition-centered medicine because of his incredible accomplishments, knowledge, and courage to stand up for what he believes. Thousands of his patients know him as an icon.” T. Colin Campbell, PhD, coauthor of The China Study
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