In the United States, health supplements (or dietary supplements) are defined under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) as a product that is intended to supplement the diet and contains any of the following dietary ingredients: a vitamin, a mineral, an herb or other botanical (excluding tobacco), an amino acid, a dietary substance for use by people to supplement the diet by increasing the total dietary intake, or a concentrate, metabolite, constituent, extract, or combination of any of the above.
Furthermore, a health supplement must also conform to the following criteria:
- intended for ingestion in pill, capsule, tablet, powder or liquid form
- not represented for use as a conventional food or as the sole item of a meal or diet
- labeled as a “dietary supplement”
Are Health Supplements Necessary?
About 77% of the American public takes some form of health supplements on a daily basis. There is a multitude of reasons to take health supplements, but the most compelling can be found in the poor state of our current food supply.
Due to intensive farming methods, the food grown today on modern farms does not contain the quantities of vitamins, minerals, enzymes and beneficial flora that these same foods did 100 years ago. In addition to the loss of nutrients through widespread soil depletion, the ground in which these foods are grown in polluted with pesticides and herbicides.
How do we know this? The USDA publishes a catalog called the Composition of Foods (Raw, Processed, Prepared). If you compare one of these catalogs from the 1960s to the current 2002 version, the can see that the nutritive values of vegetables and fruit in the US has dropped significantly. For instance, consider the following from an article on this loss of nutrients in Life Extension Magazine. They compared the old data with the new data and found that:
- Modern broccoli has 50% less calcium and vitamin A than broccoli grown in the 1960s.
- Watercress is down 88% in iron content.
- Cauliflower is down 40% in vitamin C.
- Spinach is down 46% in vitamin C, and 17% in vitamin A.
- Collard greens are down 62% in vitamin C, 42% in vitamin A, 29% in Calcium, 51% in potassium, and 84% in magnesium.
- Corn, which is the basis for large quantities of animal feed, is down 42% in vitamin C, 30% in vitamin A, 33% in calcium, 4% in potassium, and 23% in magnesium.
- The vitamin C in sweet peppers has plummeted 70%.
- The vitamin A in apples has dropped 58%.
The differences are so extreme in some cases, that the National Academy of Sciences has issued an alert that it takes twice as many vegetables to get the daily requirement of vitamin A as previously thought.
To make matters worse, the USDA has not revised the Recommended Daily Allowance tables in 30 years, so there is no current research on what levels of vitamin and mineral intakes are appropriate for our bodies.
When purchasing supplements, look for those which are made from whole, raw foods. These whole supplements closely approximate the food from which they come, and the vitamins and minerals are in “complex” form, including other compounds that assist with assimilation.
Most commercial, synthetic vitamins are created as isolated nutrients. “Isolated” nutrients are synthetic isolate versions of a single element such as vitamin C or magnesium. If you get Vitamin C from an orange, you also get a host of other beneficial compounds. In other words, the vitamins in real food are not isolated. They work in conjunction with a complex of other related nutrients called “co-factors”. These co-factors might include bioflavonoids, enzymes, phytonutrients, trace element activators, and essential fatty acids, among others.
Health supplements come in many different types. They may include:
- Vitamins: Vitamins are a group of substances essential for normal cell function, growth, and development. There are 13 essential vitamins. The body cannot make them and so they must be supplied via the food one eats. Vitamin supplements are not food replacements, because the supplemental substances cannot be absorbed without the presence of real food.
- Minerals: these substances have two purposes in the human body. They build skeletal and soft tissues, and they regulate processes such as heart rhythm, blood clotting, blood pressure, nerve function, and oxygen transport. There are 7 major minerals, used by the body in relatively large amounts.
- Enzymes: these are biomolecules that catalyze (i.e. increase the rates of) chemical reactions. Almost all enzymes are proteins. One of the most important enzymes is CoQ10. Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is necessary for the optimal function of our cells. This fat-soluble vitamin-like substance is a critical cofactor in cellular energy processes, which means it’s critical for optimal energy levels. Organs with the highest energy requirements, such as the heart and the liver, have the highest CoQ10 needs and concentrations. CoQ10 is a powerful antioxidant, and as you get older, your body may not be able to make enough, so supplementation becomes essential to enjoy the long list of CoQ10 benefits.
- Essential Fatty Acids: These would include Omega-3 fatty acids such as fish oil. In my mind, the jury is still out on the benefits of these supplements, but I mention them as they are so popular.
- Probiotics: These are health supplements containing potentially beneficial bacteria or yeasts, mostly lactobacillus organisms, which in traditional diets, are the organisms that turn milk into yogurt and kefir. Not many studies have been done on probiotic supplements. While probiotic supplements can help, you can also increase your consumption of traditional foods that have probiotic effects. This would include fermented products containing similar lactic acid bacteria, such as:
- Soured raw milk – can be made into whey and cream cheese
- Pickled vegetables, such as beets, garlic, etc.
- Fermented bean paste such as tempeh, miso, and doenjang
Not all health supplements provide the same vitamins and minerals in the same amounts. Sometimes you have taken several in combination to get a full range of nutrients in the correct amounts. I take several different types, including two different multi-vitamins, cod liver oil, fish oil, magnesium, potassium, selenium, and CoQ10. I created this handy Nutrient Tracker in Excel so I could be sure I wasn’t taking too much of any one element. It is in a zipped format. (Note: you must have Microsoft Excel loaded on your computer to be able to use the Excel tracker. If you don’t have Excel, download this manual one instead.)
Resources for Further Reading
Health supplementation is an important part of any healthy eating plan. For more information, check out the following resources:
- Dr. Atkins’ Vita-Nutrient Solution: Nature’s Answer to Drugs by Robert C. Atkins, MD
- The Vitamin Code by Massoud Arvanaghi and Mike Yorkey
- USDA Lists of Dietary Sources of Nutrients
- USDA Nutrient Database. Use this handy database to find out the facts about a specific food.
- Probiotics: Their Potential to Impact Human Health paper from the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology.