Have you ever noticed just how many supplements there are these days? I walk into any drug store or health food store and there are shelves and shelves of various vitamin, mineral, protein and other supplements. And, really, all these brands and dosages can be very confusing. Not to mention questionable…like, do we really need to supplement ALL of these things?!?!
It’s true that our food supply has lost a good percentage of its nutritional value over the last 50-70 years. This is really unfortunate, but comes from modified seed varieties and soil nutrient depletion. Modern agricultural practices have stripped nutrients from the soil and it isn’t being replenished at a quick enough rate.
Most people should take a high-quality multivitamin / mineral complex just to be sure they’re getting the nutrients they need. Even the healthiest of diets may be lacking certain vitamins or minerals so a good complex will help keep you healthy.
A Whole Foods Diet
Whole foods are any food item that has been grown, raised or caught and then eaten in its most natural state. Think of whole foods as things like fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and animal protein, like eggs, fish, seafood, poultry and red meat.
While their nutritional value may be decreasing, you are still going to be way better off health-wise by choosing a whole foods diet most of the time. Whole foods still have important nutrients that our bodies need. Aside from vitamins and minerals, we also get phytonutrients, antioxidants, fiber and essential fatty acids.
And, whole foods generally have additional compounds that we can only get from eating them – there is no supplement for these compounds. Another huge benefit of eating a whole foods diet is that the nutrients within each food work together to give the best boost to your health.
You could take each vitamin separately in supplement form. However, these supplements won’t work nearly as well (or as expected) as they do when you get them from real foods.
Aside from vitamins and minerals, there are a few extremely important nutrients that are best obtained from real, whole foods.
You’ve probably heard of antioxidants. Or, most importantly, the health benefits of these nutrients, right?
Like their name suggests, antioxidants fight or neutralize oxidation byproducts, or free radicals, in your body.
To help you understand oxidation, think about how apples, bananas and avocados turn brown when their flesh is exposed to the air. The molecular formula changes because electrons are lost.
This is also how free radicals are formed.
Free radicals have been shown to cause inflammation throughout our bodies, which then leads to diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
Certain vitamins – A, C and E – are antioxidants. However, there are other compounds found in whole foods that also act as antioxidants when eaten – carotenoids and phenols. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals by giving up electrons to stop the oxidation process. This is why lemon juice rubbed on cut apples or avocados helps to prevent browning.
Oxidation happens naturally in the body, too. Metabolism, muscle movements and other processes that keep you alive actually create free radicals. Exercise increases oxidation, too.
This is why a diet high in processed, refined carbs can increase your risk of disease – you aren’t eating the antioxidants needed to naturally slow down oxidation from bodily processes.
And, you can also cause an imbalance in your antioxidant to oxidation ratio by drinking too much alcohol, over-exercising and smoking. Plus, environmental pollutants further disrupt this balance, which makes a whole foods diet all the more important.
Your best sources of antioxidants come from richly colored fruits and vegetables. And make sure you eat the ‘rainbow’ of colors available too – purple / blue, yellow, green, red, orange, and white. Blueberries are probably one of the best sources of antioxidants available (and one of the most studied).
Food sources of carotenoids include tomatoes, carrots, squash, sweet potatoes and salmon (think ‘orange’ and ‘red’). And phenols are found in green and black teas, coffee, unsweetened cocoa, red wine and berries.
Phytonutrients are another nutrient found in plant-based foods. These chemicals are designed to help protect the plant against fungi and disease. In the human body, phytonutrients help to boost immunity, reduce inflammation, repair DNA damage, reduce toxins and improve hormonal metabolism.
Phytonutrients aren’t essential for health but they do provide protection against disease.
Just like antioxidants, phytonutrients are found in brightly colored plant-based foods. Many phytonutrients have been shown to help reduce the risk of cancer. One type of phytonutrient, the phytoestrogens found in soy, mimic the effects of estrogen in your body and help improve PMS and reduce many menopausal symptoms.
Essential Fatty Acids
Essential fatty acids get their name because our bodies can’t make them. It’s essential we obtain EFAs from our diet! EFAs are important to your health because they help boost skin and hair health, keep your nervous system functioning, and boost immunity.
Fatty acids are the usable components of fats, when broken down through digestion. We have saturated and unsaturated fats, and there are 3 classes of unsaturated fats – omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9. Only the omega-9s are non-essential – your body can make these.
Unsaturated fats are further classified as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
Monounsaturated fats include extra virgin olive oil, avocados, almonds, cashews and macadamia nuts. These have huge health-promoting benefits!
EFAs are polyunsaturated and most people are deficient in these important nutrients.
We also need the right ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids, approximately 1:4. Unfortunately, the standard North American diet has a ratio closer to 1:20! While some omega-6 fats can be good for you many are pro-inflammatory.
To improve this ratio, eat more foods like ground flaxseed, green leafy vegetables, salmon, mackerel and halibut. Limit consumption of sunflower, safflower, corn and soy oils, and choose grass fed red meat and butter.
How Safe Are Supplements?
It may seem easier to just pop a few dozen pills each day, rather than give up your favorite foods. However, a whole foods diet is a much better source of the nutrients needed to keep you alive.
There is this concept of ‘synergy’ within foods and the nutrients they contain. When you remove one component of a healthy food (i.e. vitamin A), it loses its nutritional effect that comes from being a part of the whole food.
Plus, it’s possible to cause diseases and toxicity by taking too much of certain nutrients in supplement form.
That being said, most people likely need a good quality multivitamin/mineral complex as well as a reputable omega-3 (fish oil) supplement. And, a B complex can be very helpful for people who experience a lot of daily stress.
Our food’s nutritional value has declined over the past several decades. One way to combat this is to take a daily multivitamin / mineral complex. However, further supplementation, especially when it comes to taking specific nutrients, may not provide you with the benefits you think.
Nutrients found in food work best within your body when you consume them from the whole foods that contain them. This is because there are synergistic effects of the nutrients on each other. Plus, whole foods give you way more nutritional value than simply taking a supplement of one of their components.
Always talk to your naturopathic doctor or nutrition consultant before taking any new supplements to ensure they’re right for you.
Bonus Recipe (Antioxidant-rich):
Blueberry Smoothie – Serves 2
- 1 handful baby spinach leaves
- 1 tablespoon ground flaxseed
1 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen
- 1 banana
- 1 cup unsweetened almond milk
- 1 dash cinnamon
Place all ingredients in a blender. Blend until smooth. Serve & enjoy!
Tip: Use any greens you have on hand in place of the spinach, if you wish.
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