Vitamin A helps you have healthy eyes, Vitamin C helps the immune system and calcium builds strong bones. These are things most people know. This is because the last few decades of research have focused on micronutrition. Micronutrition concerns the vitamins and minerals that are essential to health, but are consumed in very small quantities.
But is taking a Vitamin C pill really the same as eating an orange? Companies who manufacture supplements would like you to think so…as it is a billion dollar a year business. However, they are not the same. An orange is a food that contains Vitamin C, as well as thousands of other healthful compounds. The body uses all of these compounds together. A Vitamin C tablet is, well, Vitamin C in it’s pure form, plus some stuff to hold the pill together and maybe some flavouring. Not exactly what the body needs.
You hear a lot about phytochemicals lately…like lycopene, lutein and phyto-estrogens. These are compounds found in plants that may affect health and nutrition, but there are no guidelines for phytochemical consumption. There are hundreds of phytochemicals that have been found, in addition to the essential vitamins we are all familiar with…and probably thousands more than haven’t been found.
Supplements vs. whole food nutrition
The problem with obsessing over micronutrients is that if they are supplemented, rather than obtained through foods, people may be missing out on important nutrition. For example, while we may know that a lack of Vitamin D can cause rickets, simply supplementing a diet with Vitamin D may not solve all of the problems. The way the body is meant to get Vitamin D is primarily through Sun exposure…using UV light to change cholesterol into Vitamin D. Seems like something is certainly missing.
There are certainly too many vitamins and phytochemicals to take a supplement for each one. A more sensible and enjoyable way to get vitamins is from whole foods. This way, the vitamins and phytochemical are consumed in together and the chemicals can be used together, as this is how body has adapted.
Shift in new studies
There seems to shift in research lately. Rather than hearing something like “Vitamin C reduces cancer risk”, you hear things like “Raspberries reduce cancer risk”. This seems like a much more sensible approach to researching food and health. Even still, the whole diet should be taken into consideration. Surely if one ate raspberries combined with two big mac’s everyday, that person would not be very healthy. However, from the scientific standpoint, it is very difficult to study the entire diet of people…it is much easier to study a single compound or food. This is probably why we hear very little about whole diet research.
What’s the best way?
It is accepted that eating a variety of healthy foods is the best way to get all of your nutrition. Typical people that eat a varied diet do not need supplements. However, sometimes it can be helpful to supplement if you do not or cannot eat all of the foods you need.
Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons by muffet