Whether it’s mainstream news articles or alternative health gurus, there’s always a new supplement being espoused as a cure-all. Dietary supplements are so popular that 77% of U.S. adults consume them. It’s safe to say that we are obsessed with taking them.
What’s surprising is that the overall evidence on supplement use is mixed.
In a study of 30,899 participants, dietary supplement use was not associated with any mortality benefits.
Instead, it was the nutrient intake from whole foods that was associated with reduced mortality. Excess use of certain supplements was even associated with increased all-cause mortality.
One notable review cautions against supplementing multivitamins, minerals, and even vitamins A, C, D and E due to numerous studies finding no benefit and in many cases an increased risk of various diseases.
For over two decades, the daily multivitamin has been the leading choice of consumers. Certainly, the Standard American Diet has left many adults with nutritional deficiencies. But are dietary supplements really the answer?
Generally, no. Eating real, whole, nutrient-dense foods is almost always preferable.
In some cases, you may need to supplement. However, supplements should almost always be a backup plan.
The better plan is to cover your nutritional bases by eating a variety of high-quality animal products – you know, eating nose to tail.
Grass-fed meat, organ meats, properly sourced eggs, seafood, dairy and other animal products are nature’s multivitamins. These provide us with incredible nutrition and noticeable improvements in our health.
Not only are animal-sourced whole foods the most bioavailable sources of nutrients but they contain over 70,000 secondary compounds that go beyond the 13 vitamins and minerals that we see on nutrition labels. These dwarf the health benefits and bang for your buck that you would get with any man-made, isolated vitamin and mineral supplement.
There’s a special set of vitamins that do not dissolve in water: vitamins A, D, E and K. These are known as fat-soluble vitamins, and they’re best absorbed when they’re consumed with fat.
Including saturated fat from grass-fed meat as part of your diet is particularly important since it is chock full of these micronutrients!
Dietary fat complements these vitamins and aids with their transportation around our body. Most people will take supplements on their own, possibly with a glass of water or juice.
If you’re consuming one of these fat-soluble vitamins and not consuming fat with it, you’re limiting its effectiveness.
Perhaps, you could argue that this is true for most micronutrients. Why? Because when have we ever consumed a single or several micronutrients in isolation from a meal?
Not a hundred years ago. Not ten thousand years ago. Not a million years ago. It’s simply not a part of our biology.
Humans are simply not designed to pop a pill of compacted vitamins and minerals. That’s why nature packages vitamins and minerals in the perfect and purest form: whole foods.
We were free of chronic disease and thriving long before there were supplement aisles lined with multivitamins and other nonsense. And that’s because supplements are unbalanced and unlike anything we find in nature.
When eating nose to tail, we don’t just get a specific set of micronutrients. We get an entire package of nutrients as provided by mother nature: fat, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals.
In terms of nutrient density, nose to tail eating is far more effective than taking supplements (these can be very expensive) and will help spare your wallet.
While most people just go for the cuts of meat that they are familiar with, off-cuts and organ meats are even more nutritious and affordable. Different parts of animals and their byproducts provide us with different nutrients.
When eating well-sourced animal products, it’s pretty clear what we’re eating and our body is designed to extract their nutrients. Many times, with supplements, we don’t even know what’s in them.
Supplements come in contact with hundreds of machines and other substances which makes them prone to contamination. This may explain the gut distress and allergic reaction that many people experience after consuming them.
Consider the purity claims of most supplements, for example. A study conducted on twenty-six prenatal supplements found that all of them, except one, exceeded the current standards for lead toxicity.
Three of the samples even contained arsenic. All of the supplements contained toxic elements like titanium, nickel, thallium and aluminum.
And these are the supplements being sold to pregnant women who must be even more cautious than the average person.
One of the biggest problems with research on vitamins and minerals has been that we are studying them in isolation rather than in their whole food form. As a result, there is a lot of unchartered territory when it comes to the role of different vitamins and minerals.
It’s not that vitamins and minerals are ineffective or unimportant. It’s just that the research being conducted on them often looks at them in isolation rather than in their natural form.
In fact, vitamins and minerals are underappreciated by the mainstream whose knowledge of what’s healthy amounts to “eat the rainbow.”
The conversation around food has been shifted away from micronutrients to macronutrients and calories. We’re told it’s all about eating less. Focus on quantity, not quality, they said.
Really, the more important conversation is about the quality of our food and the micronutrients that our foods contain. And when we look at whole foods, animal foods are so rich in micronutrients that supplements needn't be in the conversation.
The modern world poses many threats to our health. For one, our food supply has been overwhelmed by toxic, fattening foods which you can find in the middle of every grocery store.
Most of these foods are packed with cheap vegetable oils which happen to be the go-to fats that restaurants use to cook their foods. Vegetable oils which are high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, [PUFAs] damage our cells in part by depleting them of vitamin E.
As a matter of fact, our vitamin E requirements increase with the amount of PUFAs in our diet. While the vitamin E to PUFA ratio in whole foods tends to be balanced, vegetable oils are not a whole food. And sadly, they’re everywhere.
Avoiding vegetable oils in the first place is the best strategy. But, if you happen to ingest these oils while eating at a restaurant or social gathering, taking a vitamin E supplement may be wise.
Vitamin E helps to counteract the lipid peroxidation that occurs when PUFAs enter our body. Typically, the best supplement form of vitamin E contains mixed tocopherols.
Otherwise, sticking to whole foods or finding whole foods that are higher in vitamin E could be beneficial.
Another way that the modern world poses a problem is by keeping us indoors and out of the sun. Vitamin D deficiency is widespread in our population and it has been implicated in everything from obesity and heart disease to 87% of deaths from COVID-19.
Previously, vitamin D’s effects were thought to be limited to our calcium and bone metabolism. More recently, vitamin D receptors have been discovered on T cells, B cells, and antigen-presenting cells.
This means that it’s an essential part of a healthy immune system.
Does this mean we should rely solely on vitamin D supplements? Of course not. It should be our last resort, just like with vitamin E.
While animal foods contain some vitamin D, the best option is to let sunlight shine on your skin.
If you can’t get out in the sun because it’s winter or you work indoors, then supplementing is a great option. But making time to get out in the sun, even just for 20 minutes most days, is paramount.
Since vitamin D3 and K2 work synergistically to regulate calcium in the body, the best vitamin D3 supplements also contain vitamin K2. In other words, vitamin D3 supplements are less effective without adequate vitamin K2.
The best sources of vitamin K2 are hard cheeses and other grass-fed animal products, so unless you are already including those, then you may want to consider a combination of vitamin D3/K2 like Sun Power.
We cannot take a supplement and expect a radical improvement in our health. There are no magic pills, despite what the endless marketing may tell you. Oftentimes, our diet and lifestyle have to be changed in an effort to fix underlying problems.
The bottom line is that eating a nutrient dense diet significantly reduces your need for supplements. You may need a supplement here and there, but that probably shouldn’t be a go-to strategy. We cannot out-supplement a poor diet.
We should always ask ourselves: is there a whole food that can replace this supplement?
Taking a zinc supplement? Try canned oysters.
Taking a multivitamin? Try beef liver.
Taking a calcium or vitamin K2 supplement? Try dairy.
The human body is astoundingly complex, and we may never fully understand all of its intricate systems and complex interactions. Taking a single vitamin or mineral for fear that you are deficient in it or because Google said so, likely won’t fix your ailments.
On the other hand, covering your nutritional bases with a nutrient dense diet is more likely to lead to tangible improvements in your health. We never do well trying to “hack” nature – it's always better to get things from real food in their natural form.
Brian Sanders, founder of NoseToTail.org and Sapien.org
Dan Patterson, Head Writer at Sapien.org
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