Are We Getting Everything We Need From Food Alone?
Some people still insist that supplementation isn't necessary. They argue that everything we need is found in food,
and supplements are pointless. In a perfect world, they would be correct. The sad reality is that we live in a far
from perfect world. It's been well established that most of us are not meeting all of our basic nutrient needs through
diet alone. Studies have demonstrated that most individuals are deficient in a multitude of nutrients1 (1).
From vitamins2 and minerals
How Are Nutrient Deficiencies Possible?
We're all familiar with the sayings "let food be your medicine and medicine be your food" and "you are what you eat." We can all appreciate how true these sayings are, but too many of us simply don't eat the right foods or enough of them despite this common-sense knowledge. It's easy to forget that everything that makes up your body - cells, tissues & organs – comes from the foods we eat. If we don't get all the macronutrients (protein, fats, carbs) and micronutrients (vitamins & minerals) we need from our diet, we can become nutrient insufficient or, worse still, run the risk of an outright nutrient deficiency. Nutrient deficiencies are less common in higher-income countries, but nutrient insufficiencies are quite prevalent.13 It's important to recognize that even small nutrient imbalances can profoundly impact one's health. To illustrate this point, one study theorized that the growing obesity and type II diabetes epidemic is due to micronutrient deficiencies.14,15 When these micronutrients aren't met because of the high-calorie micronutrient-poor foods being eaten, the person is constantly hungry.16 Understanding how nutrient deficiencies are possible is essential for us to appreciate why supplementation has its place and why it can be beneficial.
1. We're Not Eating Enough Nutrient-Rich Vegetables & Fruits
According to Health Canada, teens and adults should consume between 7-10 servings of vegetables and fruits a day.17 The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommend 5 to 9 servings a day.18 The International Journal of Epidemiology published a study in 2017 that found that fruit and vegetable intake was "associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and all-cause mortality." 19 The study also concluded that having 10 servings instead of the usual 5 lowered the risk of chronic diseases significantly.20
Another study published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health stated, "a significant majority of Canadians are not consuming the recommended daily servings of F/V [fruits and vegetables], with important consequences to their health..." 21 Only 26% of the population aged 2 years and older consumed the minimum number of daily servings recommended for their respective age–sex group.22 Things aren't any better down south. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state, "fewer than 1 in 10 adults and adolescents eat enough fruits and vegetables".23
2. We're Eating Too Many Processed Foods
Processed foods pack a double whammy. They are typically high in calories and low in nutrients relative to unprocessed whole foods. One study found that the most significant change we've seen in the diet of Canadians between 1938 and 2011 was the replacement of unprocessed or minimally processed foods with ready-to-consume ultra-processed unhealthy products.24
3. Food Preparation Methods Impact Nutrient Levels
Microwaving 25,26,27,28,29,30,31,32 food irradiation33,pasteurization34, boiling35,36, canning37, and freezing38 have all been shown to result in nutrient losses – specifically minerals, vitamins, phytochemicals, antioxidants, & proteins.39 Although some methods of food processing can lower nutrient levels, others will increase them. Cooking has been shown to concentrate the lycopene content in tomatoes40; increase the digestibility of starchy plant foods41; increase the protein digestibility of eggs by 180% relative to raw eggs42– sorry Rocky Balboa – raw eggs aren't better for you! For the most part, the take-home message is to eat fruits and vegetables as soon after they're harvested as possible or risk some nutrient loss.43
Common Food Prep Methods & Their Impact on Nutrients
- Green Beans - Refrigerating at 4°C for 7 days after harvesting results in vitamin C loss by as much as 77%44
- Asparagus - Canning results in a vitamin C loss between 10-90%45
- Spinach - When stored at room temperature it lost 100% of its vitamin C content after 4 days46
- Green Peas - After being frozen for 6 months lost 66% of their vitamin C 47
- Broccoli - After being frozen for 8 months lost 48% of its antioxidant activity48
- Broccoli - Microwaving resulted in a 66% loss of flavonoids49
- Zucchini - After 7 days of refrigeration it lost 34% of it's antioxidant content50
4. Poor Soil = Nutrient Poor Food
It's now well recognized that soil nutrient depletion is a genuine concern. Poor soil management practices and industrialized farming have reduced nutrient levels and impacted the important soil microbial balance required for healthy crops. Studies have shown that many of today's fruits, vegetables, grains and meats are lower in nutrients than those same foods were 70 years ago.51,52,53
5. Reliance On Imported Vs Locally Grown Foods
On average, food travels a remarkable 2,500 km (1,553 miles) before reaching our plates54. By contrast, foods that are grown locally travel 250 km (155 miles) or less55. Aside from the environmental toll that we pay when hauling produce over long distances, there's another reason why distance matters. Generally speaking, local foods are picked ripe when they're at their peak of nutrient perfection. Imported foods, by contrast, are often picked well before their nutrient levels peak, so they don't spoil on the long journey to your home. Bottom line, local foods are not only fresher and often better tasting, but they're also richer in nutrients.56
The Proof Is In The Nutrient Deficient Pudding
We need to simply look at the research to recognize we are not all meeting our optimal nutrient needs. This is especially true for seniors, people with malabsorption diseases (cystic fibrosis, celiac disease, ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease), obese individuals, during pregnancy and lactation. This study best describes our present-day diet, and its impact on our health - "Over the past 60 years there have been fundamental changes in the quality and quantity of food available to us as a nation. The character, growing method, preparation, source and ultimate presentation of basic staples have changed significantly to the extent that trace elements and micronutrient contents have been severely depleted... Concurrently there has been a precipitous change towards convenience and pre-prepared foods containing saturated fats, highly processed meats and refined carbohydrates, often devoid of vital micronutrients yet packed with a cocktail of chemical additives including colourings, flavourings and preservatives. It is proposed that these changes are significant contributors to rising levels of diet-induced ill health. Ongoing research clearly demonstrates a significant relationship between deficiencies in micronutrients and physical and mental ill health." 57
A Health Canada publication entitled "Do Canadian Adults Meet Their Nutrient Requirements Through Food Intake Alone?" found 10-35% of adult Canadians had nutrient levels below the estimated average requirement for the following micronutrients; vitamins A, B6, B12, folate, C, D, calcium, magnesium and zinc.58 Micronutrient inadequacies have been linked to "general fatigue, reduced ability to fight infections, or impaired cognitive function (i.e., attention [concentration and focus], memory, and mood...and may also have important implications for long-term health and increase one's risk for chronic diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes mellitus, osteoporosis, and age-related eye disease."59 There's increasing evidence that nutrient deficiencies early in life may increase adolescent violence.60,61,62,63,64,65 One study found that children at age 3 that were deficient in protein, zinc, iron, and vitamin B "exhibited greater antisocial, aggressive, and/or hyperactive behaviors" later in life.66 Studies have also shown that a simple multivitamin may reduce antisocial behaviour and violence.67,68
What Should We Do?
Eat more healthy, nutrient-rich foods
7-10 Servings of Veggies & Fruits
- Vegetables and fruits are the richest source of micronutrients one can consume. Strive for no less than 7 to 10 servings of veggies & fruits a day. If possible, buy organic and try to get as many locally grown options as you can. Ensure these foods represent the colours of the rainbow (green, red, purple, blue, yellow, orange, white). Each of these colours represents valuable antioxidants and phytonutrients present in the veggies and fruits we consume.
Healthy Protein Foods That Are Also Rich in Healthy Fats & Fiber
- Nuts, seeds & legumes provide a good source of protein and fiber. Nuts & seeds also provide healthy fats (monounsaturates & polyunsaturates). Approximately one handful of nuts a day was found to lower the risk of death.69
- Aim for 1/4 of a cup of fiber (25-38 g) a day. 95% of adults and children are not consuming the recommended amount of fiber.1 Scientists have been telling us that we are "Fiber Deficient"2, and we need to close this "Fiber Gap." Fiber has been shown to help you reduce your risk of certain cancers, heart disease, stroke, help keep you regular and help the body detoxify (more on this here). 70
- Nuts, seeds, some fruits (avocado and olive), and fish are all great sources of healthy fats. Consume a variety of these. Flaxseeds, walnuts, avocados, olive oil, fish. In particular, try consuming more omega-3 fats that are found in flax, chia, hemp hearts, and fish. North Americans are not consuming nearly enough of these good fats and were found to be deficient.71
Consider Using Foundational Supplements
- Multivitamin/mineral supplement
- Vitamin D3 during the winter months
- Omega-3 supplement (fish oil or vegan alternative – algae sourced EPA/DHA | flax seed | hemp | chia)
- Protein Supplement (e.g., Boosted Vegan All-In-One)
- Greens Powders (e.g., Ultimate Daily Greens)
- Fiber Supplement (e.g., Ultimate Daily Cleanse)
Eat More Healthy Nutrient-Rich Foods
Our hectic lives often force our hands, making us chose convenience over quality. It's essential to remember that supplements, as their name suggests, are designed to "supplement" or "compliment" the diet and not replace healthy eating. Foods are the most potent medicine we have and, when chosen carefully, can reduce our risk of nutrient deficiencies. Supplementation alone isn't the answer, but it can be part of the solution. Choosing supplements that complement the diet and make up for nutrient inadequacies should be seen as an insurance policy for your health!
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Disclaimer: The information in this article has not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or Health Canada. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This article is for information purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Please seek competent medical advice before making any significant changes to your normal eating pattern.