Do we need them?
As a Functional Nutritional Therapist I always, without question, advocate for food first. “You cannot out-supplement a bad diet”, is a phrase I hear a lot and one that I agree with wholeheartedly. Without the principles of good quality protein, lots of leafy veg, healthy fats and a whole heap of colour on your plate it’s difficult to even begin to think about improving someone’s health.
That being said, these days our food simply does not contain the density of nutrients that it once did. There are exceptions to this, however: Foods like oysters, liver (from grass fed, organic meat) and pasture raised eggs are still hugely nutrient dense - but 90% of the population doesn’t consume these foods on a regular basis. Instead we opt for the same vegetables, fruit, grains, legumes and protein sources over and over again, and not only do we lack the diversity and abundance that a truly ‘healthy’ diet should contain (to keep our gut bugs happy we need between 30-50 different plant foods per week), but the actual chemical make-up of our food has changed over the last hundred years or so.
Unfortunately, intensive farming methods have depleted the soil of nutrients, and put chemical residues into the soil via fertiliser run-off. European soil is said to be 72% less nutrient-rich than it was 60 years ago which means that our fresh produce, veg and fruit, simply isn’t as good for us as it once was, and even organic food can be less good for us than it once was (although it definitely still pays to buy organic if you can!).
When you add to this the higher concentration of toxins in our environment from air pollution, synthetic chemicals in our beauty products and cookware, home furnishings and office spaces, our bodies are left at a serious disadvantage. We need all the vitamins and minerals from our food to adequately detoxify out these chemicals from our environment, but oftentimes we just don't take enough of them in.
All of my patient population will be on supplements at some point in their journey with me towards better health, but because the balance between nutrients in the body is so delicate (i.e. take too much of one mineral and you could endanger your stores of another), my mantra with supplements is always TEST DON’T GUESS!
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Too often these days I see people popping pills just because they’ve heard it might help them (using magnesium as a bit of an “off switch” to help you sleep, for example). And whilst you may actually need magnesium (many of us do), it’s always best to check first with a Nutritional Therapist.
The way your body functions is always going to be different from the claims made on the supplement bottle, hence starting with the best quality food you can afford is always the best place to start, before following this up with some guidance on which supplements might be right for you. Think too about boosting your daily intake of nutrients by supplementing with foods - organic green juices, smoothies made with superfoods, greens, protein, nuts and seeds for breakfast instead of a relatively ‘empty’ (in the nutritional sense of the word) piece of toast and peanut butter, for example.
If you’re constantly tired, instead of rushing straight for the B vitamins why don’t you try balancing your blood sugar by avoiding excessive amounts of carbohydrates and increasing your intake of good quality sources of protein and healthy fats, getting your sleep hygiene on point and reducing your stress levels.
If you think you might be iron deficient, look first to nature’s sources of iron (organic, grass fed beef, leafy greens), and then follow up with a Nutritional Therapist if you still think you might have an issue. Not all supplements were created equal, often the cheap, over-the-counter brands use the most poorly absorbed form of the mineral or vitamin, which is another reason why seeking professional help will get you better results in the long run.
I think as time goes on, unless we start taking serious steps to improve the quality of our soil and support regenerative farming and agriculture, many more of us will have to rely more heavily on supplementation. For the meantime though, think food first, think organic, think nutrient-dense rather than empty calories. Then, if you still feel lacking, seek some advice from a qualified professional - and get those greens in!
Remember, test don’t guess!