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Title: Are Supplements Worth the Investment?Description: Explore the efficacy and benefits of incorporating supplements into your daily regimen. Discover if these dietary additions truly deliver results that work.

Do We Need Supplements, And Do They Work?

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Does our diet need a little help?

We asked you for your take on supplements, and got the above-illustrated, below-described set of results.

  • The largest minority of respondents (a little over a third) voted for “I just take something very specific”
  • The next most respondents voted for “I take so many supplements; every little helps!”
  • Almost as many voted for “I just take a vitamin or two / a multivitamin”
  • Fewest, about 8%, voted for “I get everything I need from my diet”

But what does the science say?

Food is less nutritious now than it used to be: True or False?

True or False depending on how you measure it.

An apple today and an apple from a hundred years ago are likely to contain the same amounts of micronutrients per apple, but a lower percentage of micronutrients per 100g of apple.

The reason for this is that apples (and many other food products; apples are just an arbitrary example) have been selectively bred (and in some cases, modified) for size, and because the soil mineral density has remained the same, the micronutrients per apple have not increased commensurate to the increase in carbohydrate weight and/or water weight. Thus, the resultant percentage will be lower, despite the quantity remaining the same.

We’re going to share some science on this, and/but would like to forewarn readers that the language of this paper is a bit biased, as it looks to “debunk” claims of nutritional values dropping while skimming over “yes, they really have dropped percentage-wise” in favor of “but look, the discrete mass values are still the same, so that’s just a mathematical illusion”.

The reality is, it’s no more a mathematical illusion than is the converse standpoint of saying the nutritional value is the same, despite the per-100g values dropping. After all, sometimes we eat an apple as-is; sometimes we buy a bag of frozen chopped fruit. That 500g bag of chopped fruit is going to contain less copper (for example) than one from decades past.

Here’s the paper, and you’ll see what we mean:

Mineral nutrient composition of vegetables, fruits and grains: The context of reports of apparent historical declines

Supplements aren’t absorbed properly and thus are a waste of money: True or False?

True or False depending on the supplement (and your body, and the rest of your diet)

Many people are suffering from dietary deficiencies of vitamins and minerals, that could be easily correctable by supplementation:

However, as this study by Dr. Fang Fang Zhang shows, a lot of vitamin and mineral supplementation does not appear to have much of an effect on actual health outcomes, vis-à-vis specific diseases. She looks at:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Cancer
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Osteoporosis

Her key take-aways from this study were:

  • Randomised trial evidence does not support use of vitamin, mineral, and fish oil supplements to reduce the risk of non-communicable diseases
  • People using supplements tend to be older, female, and have higher education, income, and healthier lifestyles than people who do not use them
  • Use of supplements appreciably reduces the prevalence of inadequate intake for most nutrients but also increases the prevalence of excess intake for some nutrients
  • Further research is needed to assess the long term effects of supplements on the health of the general population and in individuals with specific nutritional needs, including those from low and middle income countries

Read her damning report: Health effects of vitamin and mineral supplements

On the other hand…

This is almost entirely about blanket vitamin-and-mineral supplementation. With regard to fish oil supplementation, many commercial fish oil supplements break down in the stomach rather than the intestines, and don’t get absorbed well. Additionally, many people take them in forms that aren’t pleasant, and thus result in low adherence (i.e., they nominally take them, but in fact they just sit on the kitchen counter for a year).

One thing we can conclude from this is that it’s good to check the science for any given supplement before taking it, and know what it will and won’t help for. Our “Monday Research Review” editions of 10almonds do this a lot, although we tend to focus on herbal supplements rather than vitamins and minerals.

We can get everything we need from our diet: True or False?

Contingently True (but here be caveats)

In principle, if we eat the recommended guideline amounts of various macro- and micro-nutrients, we will indeed get all that we are generally considered to need. Obviously.

However, this may come with:

  • Make sure to get enough protein… Without too much meat, and also without too much carbohydrate, such as from most plant sources of protein
  • Make sure to get enough carbohydrates… But only the right kinds, and not too much, nor at the wrong time, and without eating things in the wrong order
  • Make sure to get enough healthy fats… Without too much of the unhealthy fats that often exist in the same foods
  • Make sure to get the right amount of vitamins and minerals… We hope you have your calculators out to get the delicate balance of calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamin D right.

That last one’s a real pain, by the way. Too much or too little of one or another and the whole set start causing problems, and several of them interact with several others, and/or compete for resources, and/or are needed for the others to do their job.

And, that’s hard enough to balance when you’re taking supplements with the mg/µg amount written on them, never mind when you’re juggling cabbages and sardines.

On the topic of those sardines, don’t forget to carefully balance your omega-3, -6, and -9, and even within omega-3, balancing ALA, EPA, and DHA, and we hope you’re juggling those HDL and LDL levels too.

So, when it comes to getting everything we need from our diet, for most of us (who aren’t living in food deserts and/or experiencing food poverty, or having a medical condition that restricts our diet), the biggest task is not “getting enough”, it’s “getting enough of the right things without simultaneously overdoing it on the others”.

With supplements, it’s a lot easier to control what we’re putting in our bodies.

And of course, unless our diet includes things that usually can’t be bought in supermarkets, we’re not going to get the benefits of taking, as a supplement, such things as:

Etc.

So, there definitely are supplements with strong science-backed benefits, that probably can’t be found on your plate!

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