Are Supplements Necessary?
It seems that when science talks about the health benefits of foods, they often break
them down to their individual chemical components. This process has been very helpful in
discovering nutrients that are both beneficial and detrimental to our health
(i.e. antioxidants and trans fats). However, when it comes to the positive
health effects fruits and vegetables have (such as anticancer properties),
research seems to look at single nutrients, which has helped to drive the nutraceutical
business. However, this blog article is going to focus on the known nutrients
that fruits and vegetables naturally contain and how they might work together
to help our bodies.
What do we find naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables and how do they play a role in our health? Vitamins, minerals,
fiber and phytonutrients are found in whole fruits and vegetables. There has been research showing that each of these may have antioxidant, antimicrobial, cardioprotective and/or anticarcinogenic properties.
Vitamins and Minerals:
Fruits and vegetables naturally contain Vitamins A, C, E, K and B vitamins such
as Niacin, Riboflavin, Folate, and B6. Minerals that we can find include iron,
potassium, calcium, magnesium and molybdenum. These vitamins and minerals help
to promote and maintain regular bodily functions, where each nutrient has a
unique role or some might work together towards a common goal. Many of the B
vitamins function as coenzymes (molecules which help enzymes carry out their
functions), are required to help our bodies get energy from proteins, fats,
carbohydrates and alcohol. Vitamin B6 is used in protein metabolism; folate and
B12 function together to ensure normal cell division. Vitamin K is required for
blood clotting, Vitamin C plays an essential role is synthesizing proteins for
connective tissue, neurotransmitters and hormones. Vitamins A, C and E act as
antioxidants to protect against oxidative damage to our cells. Vitamins A and D
along with calcium, phosphorus and magnesium, play an important role in
building and repairing our bones. This is just a very short list of the
functions vitamins and minerals have, not only in regulatory bodily functions, but
also in prevention of damage due to oxidation (which include cancers and heart
Fiber: We could write whole books on the benefits of fiber and the mechanisms by which they do their work, but we’ll try to make
this short and sweet. Fiber is a carbohydrate that human enzymes cannot digest. Fiber can help us lower our cholesterol, maintain blood sugar, relieve constipation and help us stay fuller, longer. Foods that are high in fiber are also nutrient dense and lower in calories. Fiber helps lower cholesterol by binding to bile and carrying it out of our bodies, our liver then uses cholesterol to create more bile. It helps us feel fuller, longer because it takes long to digest. Furthermore, since our bodies cannot digest fiber, it does not raise blood glucose and insulin levels. Fiber can help relieve constipation by adding bulk to stool and helping it move through our intestines.
Phytonutrients: There have been about 8,000 phytonutrients discovered in fruits and vegetables and while we may not be completely sure of their benefits, there have been research showing that people, who consume more than 4 servings of fruits and vegetables that are high in nutrients such as flavonoids, lessened their risk of cardiovascular disease. In certain in vitro (test tube) and in vivo (living organism) trials, flavonoids have shown promising results as anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anticarcinogenic agents. They help our cell processes, including growth and death. This could help prevent cancer by helping our bodies destroy damaged/cancerous cells, which do not respond to signals from our bodies telling them to stop duplicating.
You could find each of these nutrients in supplement form (either in pills or powders), but do they have the same benefit as whole foods? They are the same nutrients, so why not? According to an article published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, supplements do not have the same effects as nutrients found in whole foods. “The isolated pure compound either loses its bioactivity or may
not behave the same way as the compound in whole foods.” It also mentions “in a human study, involving 30 healthy individuals whose diets were supplemented with 500 mg vitamin C showed an increase of oxidative damage in the DNA
isolated from lymphocytes.” Suggesting that it is not a good idea to take high dose supplements of Vitamin C. Another reason to choose foods over supplements are that supplements are not regulated by any government agency and some comes
with added sugars and other fillers.
For most people, taking supplements may be unnecessary and we can, instead, eat fresh, whole foods. Perhaps the next time we read emerging research on the benefits of nutrients that are found in fruits and vegetables, it will reaffirm our decision to choose a diet which includes a variety of whole foods, rather than encouraging us to go out and purchase a variety of supplements.
If you’re curious about the amount of flavonoids found in your favorite foods, visit here: http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/Data/Flav/flav.html
Or for a much more simplified version, visit here: http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/phytochemicals/flavonoids/flavtab2.html
and here: http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/phytochemicals/flavonoids/flavtab2.html
Smolin, Lori A., and Mary B. Grosvenor. Nutrition: science and applications. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2007. Print.