Even a few decades earlier, we might have all nodded together and unanimously voiced a resounding yes to this question. Not any longer.
There’s no denying that some of us who are on a very restricted diet or in the advanced stages of deficiency diseases definitely need nutritional supplements like vitamins, minerals, or the amazing antioxidants.
But most of us don’t.
That’s hard to believe when we have also been told for years that the need is real. It would seem that the problems that started us off on supplements still exist – first, with our diets being less than wholesome, we must be deficient; second, without a little backing from the supplements, we would surely not be able to prevent diseases.
Turns out, our apprehension wasn’t on point.
We did start taking supplements to prevent diseases, but there’s not enough concrete evidence to support that they deliver (except for folic acid which prevents neural tube defects in newborns). On the other hand, some supplements turned out to be detrimental for health.
For instance, vitamin E supplements were once touted as the savior of the heart. In a few decades, however, the reality turned out to be quite the opposite. Isolated vitamin E supplements were seen raising the risk of heart attacks.
Without their supporting food matrix in whole food, isolated nutrients in supplements could turn rogue and end up compounding the risk of disease.
Prevention is best done with wholesome real food (and fortified food, should real nutritious food be scarce) and the right lifestyle.
Most of Us Are Not Deficient
For most of us, however, the main function of supplements is to fill gaps in our nutrition. We are convinced that our diets aren’t cutting it.
But as per a recent poll by the American Osteopathic Association, of the 86% of Americans who take some sort of nutritional supplements, only 24% had real deficiencies.
In truth, we have been giving too little credit to our diets. Of course, we may not be going out of our way to eat only salads, roasts, and soups, but we don’t live on french fries and soda either. Also, in our diet’s defense, whenever we make a trip to the market, we do load our carts with fortified foods.
Unless we are single-mindedly striving for it, it’s quite difficult to be lacking in vitamins A, most Bs, C, E, and K and minerals like potassium, sodium, calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium. For one, they are pretty much everywhere, and for another, we need tiny amounts.
We’re not doing too bad for even vitamins B12 and D which occur in fewer foods. With diverse products like cereals, soymilk, and meat substitutes now enriched with B12, we’re doing just fine. And despite the widespread panic, most of us manage to get enough D from the sun and fortified foods.
Long story short, most of us don’t have deficiencies. So we certainly don’t need to spend a fortune on nutritional supplements to patch up holes that do not exist.
Even If Some of Us Are Deficient, Food Is the Best Fix
Of course, we can’t overlook the fact that in the poll, 24% did have deficiencies. And it would seem that for this population, nutritional supplements are essential.
Yes and no.
If the deficiency is severe and we have no time to lose, nutritional deficiencies can be a short-term fix, more like a stopgap. These are powerful chemicals we are talking about. If they stay too long in the body, the body ends up losing its ability to patch itself up and stay balanced.
More important is to dig up the root of the deficiency.
Is it our diet?
If indeed our diet is lacking in a particular nutrient, the best solution is a few rich food sources of the nutrient.
Do we need some more calcium? A cup of milk, a slice of cheese, a handful of almonds, some collard greens, and a serving of canned salmon spread through the day could seal the deal. The best part is that these foods don’t just provide calcium. Some of them also provide the vitamin D and K needed to absorb and utilize the calcium. On top of that, they offer a glut of other helpful stuff to improve all other functional areas in our body.
Single, isolated nutrients in synthetic supplements cannot claim to provide wide-branching benefits like food. In any case, with most nutrients occurring in a variety of foods (each with a unique food matrix offering unique benefits), it’s unlikely we’d ever be strapped for choice of foods.
So depending on nutritional supplements can only be justified when we can’t have these foods, whether because we can’t get our hands on them or we are on a severely restricted diet.
Most of us don’t have either challenge.
Sometimes Change in Lifestyle Could Also Help
But at this point, before looking for new foods or taking the shortcut and starting a course of supplements, we could ask another question.
Have we always been deficient?
If the answer is yes, and there’s nothing amiss with our diet or lifestyle, a more deep-rooted problem at the functional level may also need to be addressed.
For most of us, the answer is no. Then one probable reason for our current deficiency is that something has changed in our diet. Did we cut out a few food groups altogether? Did we incorporate some others?
The right thing to do is to get back to the old diet that had worked for us.
However, it’s perhaps more likely that rather than our diet, our lifestyle has changed. Which is what is reducing our body’s ability to absorb and utilize nutrients.
Perhaps we are not aligning our daily routine with the natural day-night routine of our body – our circadian rhythm. Perhaps we are tiring ourselves recklessly or not at all. Perhaps we are taxing a few organs (like the liver and lungs) with our “stress busters” (like alcohol and cigarettes) a little too much.
If basic functions like sleep and immunity are compromised, digestion, absorption, and utilization of nutrients also take a step back. The body then has more important things to focus on than making the most of food.
In that case, the solution is certainly not nutritional supplements. No matter how many of those we take, our body will refuse to absorb them as well.
One solution is making our lifestyle work in tandem with our diet and to the tick of our body clock. Sometimes, all it needs is a few tweaks here and there – for instance, pushing lunchtime up by just an hour, making sure to get up and stretch every couple of hours, or taking 5 minutes to meditate before bed.
Another Sustainable Solution Is Taking Balancing Supplements
There’s one more thing we could do as we fix our diet and readjust our lifestyle to the extent possible: add the right kind of supplement to complement their effect.
The right kind of supplement helps the body balance its functions so that the nutrients can be better utilized. For instance, it could fine-tune our digestion. Or it could make sure our body gets back its natural restorative sleep.
Typically, these are organic whole supplements (usually comprising herbs and spices) that are kept as close to their natural form as possible. That way their beneficial food matrix is kept intact. Like food, they have a wholesome balancing effect – gentler and safer than their isolated active ingredients.
Not Just Any Balancing Supplement, Only Those Personalized for Us
But it’s not enough for the balancing supplements to be theoretically right. They need to be right for each of us, individually, practically.
Despite all our structural similarities, we are very different people with different metabolisms. That’s why some of us can work fine with just 5 hours of sleep while some need 8; or some of us can stay calm under pressure while some crumble; or some of us can eat just about anything while others have to pick and choose carefully.
To balance our metabolism, we need supplements that address these crucial differences – that is, personalized balancing supplements for each of our unique body types and needs.
Once our body has regained its natural rhythm, it would be more adept at absorbing and utilizing nutrients from food and even from nutritional supplements, should a severe need ever arise.