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Mother Nature is really smart. Of course, scientists try to outsmart her all the time… and many even think they’ve got her beat. I find that simultaneously hilarious and horrifying, given she’s had billions of years to perfect her creations and modern humans have had, what, a hundred thousand years or so?
Let’s take vitamins and minerals, for example. Mother Nature has conveniently packaged them for us in the form of fruits, vegetables, herbs, roots, and (for the omnivores out there) animals. By contrast, most of the vitamin and mineral supplements we see on store shelves have been synthesized in a lab.
If we’re feeling sick, we’ll take some extra vitamin C. Anemic? We take iron pills. Sure, they can help. But to really maximize the benefits from your supplements, you’ll want a bit more than just the vitamin C or iron.
Natural foods have a complex mix of nutrients
It’s certainly ok to take vitamin C and iron pills. But when we shop for these supplements, we tend to look at how much of a particular nutrient that supplement contains and leave it at that.
The problem is, have you ever seen a plant or animal in nature that contains ONLY vitamin C or ONLY iron* and nothing else? Of course not. Natural foods contain a complex mix of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, antioxidants, fat, fiber, and other micronutrients that all work together in harmony to keep us healthy.
* Iron in its original metallic form is not “dietary iron”. Our bodies cannot easily assimilate iron unless it comes from plants or animals.
Nuts and seeds, for example, are naturally rich in B-vitamins and vitamin E, as well as iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, calcium, high-quality proteins, fatty acids, and countless other bioactive compounds. There’s a lot going on there! And while scientists can artificially mimic the taste or other characteristics of real foods, it’s unlikely they will ever be able to re-create the harmony and complexity of their full nutritional profile.
Does this mean that lab-synthesized vitamins and minerals bad for us? No, not always (though they can be). They just aren’t as effective as real foods or as supplements that are made from real food ingredients.
In this article
- Whole food supplements vs. isolated nutrients (“isolates”)
- Supplementing a healthy diet
- Too much of a good thing
- Additives in supplements
Whole food supplements vs. isolated nutrients (“isolates”)
It can be difficult for many of us to get all the nutrients we need from food alone. This is especially true when our health is compromised or our digestive system is overtaxed and our bodies don’t absorb all the nutrients from food alone. For this reason, supplementation is incredibly helpful, even necessary, to support our immune system and keep us healthy.
Supplements are often sold as lab-synthesized ‘isolates’. Yet our bodies tend to absorb nutrients more effectively when they are packaged together, as nature intended them to be, as opposed to when individual nutrients have been isolated in a lab.
Thankfully, there are plenty of whole food (real food) supplements that we can choose instead. Just be sure to check the ingredients list to be sure you know what you’re getting. Supplements are often sold as a blend of several nutrients, but if the label doesn’t specifically say that they are made from whole foods, you can assume it is a blend of isolates.
Real food supplement vs. an isolate. See the difference?
Compare the nutrients from the vitamin B-3 isolate on the left to the vitamin-B complex from whole (real) foods on the right. See the difference?
Supplementing a healthy diet
It’s worth mentioning that you can’t eat a crappy diet and expect your multivitamin to make up for it, even if your multivitamin is made from the highest quality, organic whole foods that money could buy. I mean, if you do eat a crappy diet, please do supplement. But my point is that supplements are not a replacement for a healthy, balanced diet. They are, as the name suggests, supplemental to a diet that is, ideally, healthy and balanced.
While supplements that come from whole foods are already a great choice, several brands are now fermenting their food ingredients with beneficial bacteria to make the nutrients even more easily digested and assimilated by our bodies. New Chapter explains this well in their below video.
Too much of a good thing
Whole food supplements and isolates both tend to be more concentrated in nutrients than individual foods are. As a result, it’s easier to consume more of a particular nutrient than our body requires — or can even handle.
This excess can be a good thing when we are feeling sick, injured, or are dealing with a serious illness. Or if we suffer from a chronic condition that can quickly deplete our nutrients. In that case, our body will consume the higher-than-usually-required dose of certain vitamins or minerals, because it needs to. But once it takes what it needs, our body will either expel what it does not need… or it will accumulate it in the liver.
- When our body expels the excess, that is good. To clarify, the elimination process can leave us chained to our bathroom with diarrhea and nausea, which isn’t fun. But these side effects are temporary. This can happen when we take too much of a water-soluble nutrient such as vitamin B or C, for example.
- When we accumulate the excess, that is bad. In this case, a normally healthy nutrient can become toxic to our body. Overdosing on iron or vitamins A, D, E, or K, for example, can lead to serious, even life-threatening effects.
Please keep this in mind if you take multiple supplements that overlap in certain nutrients.
Additives in supplements
Traditional supermarket and drugstore supplements will often contain artificial flavors, fillers, binders, and other unwanted additives. Even real food supplements may add ingredients to bind or contain their nutrients… though more thoughtful brands tend to use things like plant-based cellulose and organic rice hulls in place of synthetics.
To be sure you’re getting the cleanest product, check the “other ingredients” on the label (usually printed below the nutrients list) to see what else the brand has added to their supplement.
A simple choice
It’s funny how we can really over-complicate simple things. Synthetic isolates are manufactured in a lab… yet only offer the basic benefits of a single nutrient. Meanwhile, Mother Nature has already assembled synergistic packages of nutrients — in all their complexities — in simple whole foods. Complex. Yet simple.
So while isolates can have their benefits, I choose (and recommend) whole food supplements whenever possible.