In certain circles, it’s become en vogue to shun supplements and rely strictly on food to fulfill our nutritional needs. It’s one thing to take a “food first” approach in which you design your diet around the healthiest food options available, but it’s another to reject supplements altogether. It would be great if we could get all our nutrition from food, but unfortunately, this attitude can cause more problems than it solves.
For example, aging causes changes that make it harder to absorb some essential vitamins and minerals from food. Then there’s the fact that certain disorders such as diabetes or stress increase our needs for nutrients beyond what is available in even the healthiest diet.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of why getting all our nutrition from food is a bad idea, we need to address the elephant in the room: The Standard American Diet. More than 50 percent of the food the average American eats is ultra processed and high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, processed meat, salt, and fat. Vegetables are a rare treat and the ones people do include tend to be fried or canned. Despite the current obsession with kale, most people rarely eat leafy greens, let alone include them with every meal.
Antioxidants, which are found in abundance in fruits, vegetables, and some select other foods such as coffee, green tea, or cacao, are necessary for the body to get rid of inflammation. Without a diet rich in antioxidants from plants, your blood antioxidant levels go down and you’re unable to counter reactive oxygen species that damage cells and increase risk of heart disease and cancer.
Then there are whole grains. Although reports suggest that “whole” grain intake appears to be increasing, it’s more likely that these are processed foods “made with whole grains” that do not have the same nutrient content or protective effect on health as whole grains eaten boiled with the husk on.
There are other problems with the average American diet, which we’ll discuss below, but this gives you an idea of the problems you’re getting yourself into if you think you can get all your nutrition from a combination of fast food, cereal, and deli meat. What follows are ten reasons why strategic supplementation is the way to go if you want peak health and energy levels, while maintaining optimal body composition.
#1: A Diet With Unbalanced Macronutrients
Diets that are heavily skewed to favor one of the macronutrients (fat, protein, or carbohydrates) are unlikely to be sufficiently diverse to meet your nutrient needs. This is especially true with the most popular diets: A review of nutrient content in four fad diets found that they all lacked an average of 15 essential nutrients, only supplying 43 percent of the U.S. recommended allowance of key nutrients.
To achieve sufficiency in all nutrients from food on these diets, it would be necessary to eat thousands of calories a day—an amount that would cause significant weight gain and compromise health. Although all the diets were deficient, the ones that were heavily skewed in favor of one macronutrient were the worst. For example, the “heart-healthy” DASH diet is an eating program designed to lower blood pressure that gets the majority of calories from whole carb sources.
An analysis of the diet found it to be lacking in 13 necessary nutrients, of which vitamin B5 and B7, vitamin D, vitamin E, choline, chromium, iodine, and molybdenum were the most glaring deficiencies. To achieve sufficiency in all nutrients from food, it would be necessary to consume 5,000 calories a day.
#2: High-Carbohydrate Diets
When you have a high carbohydrate intake (both as a total percentage of your diet and from high-glycemic foods), you increase your requirements for certain nutrients. For example, extra magnesium is required for insulin signaling and blood sugar regulation.
Studies indicate that a lack of magnesium is implicated in the progression of insulin resistance and diabetes. For example, in a recent large-scale study, magnesium was protective against the development of diabetes. Individuals with the highest dietary magnesium had the lowest diabetes rates whereas those who consumed the least had the highest risk of diabetes over the course of the study.
#3: Reduction In Nutritional Quality of Food
Due to industrial farming practices, the soil used to grow millions of pounds of food has become depleted, leading to a significant reduction in vitamin and mineral levels. Although food scientists have made significant progress in increasing the flavor, sweetness, and pest resistance of crops, nutrient profiles have suffered.
Surveys estimate “reliable declines” in a long list of nutrients ranging from an average decrease of 15 percent for potassium to 35 percent for magnesium. Calcium, copper, and vitamins A, B6, E, C, and iron all decreased significantly. Animal products are also suffering from nutrient depletion. Animals eat plants, so when their plant feed contains fewer nutrients, the animals are malnourished as well.
#4: Poor Intestinal Absorption Due To Gut Problems
To benefit from the nutrients in the food you eat, your gut must be able to absorb them. When your gut is healthy, your body does a good job of absorbing nutrients and eliminating waste products.
However, many things can hamper gut function including drug therapies, stress and cortisol, and immune factors. When the gut is compromised, malabsorption occurs, which means that nutrients are not being absorbed. In this case, general supplementation won’t help unless you solve your gut issues.
#5: Increased Nutrient Needs Due To Stress & Elevated Cortisol
Coping with stress is a nutrient-dense process. The body burns through nutrients when it is producing and metabolizing cortisol.
For example, one of cortisol’s primary functions is to raise blood sugar to give you energy to get through a stressful time. Magnesium helps convert blood sugar to energy but it is also necessary for the body to clear cortisol once the stress has subsided. Other nutrients that are depleted by stress include vitamin C (a major cortisol metabolizer), vitamin B5 (necessary for the adrenals to produce cortisol), taurine (allows for GABA production, a neurotransmitter that opposes cortisol), and vitamins B6, B9, and B12 (impact GABA release).
Extra phytonutrients from colorful fruits and vegetables are also necessary to allow the body to counter the inflammation that is a byproduct of stress.
The GI tract also takes a beating when your cortisol is elevated. Taking glutamine and glycine (two amino acids that have been shown to repair the gut lining) can help counter cortisol and restore gut barrier function.
#6: Medication Use
Prescription drug use can significantly deplete nutrient levels. Simply taking an oral birth control can sap your body of much needed nutrients including CoQ10, DHEA, folic acid, magnesium, tyrosine, vitamins B2, B6, C, E, and zinc. Aspirin depletes folic acid, vitamin C, iron, potassium, and zinc. Anti-depressants deplete vitamin D. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Here is a list of drugs that diminish nutrient levels in the body.
Nutritional needs increase for the elderly, while calorie requirements decrease. This mismatch makes it difficult for people over age 60 to achieve even a baseline nutritional status without careful attention to diet and strategic supplementation.
With age, stomach acid and digestive enzyme levels naturally decrease making it more difficult to break down and absorb nutrients. For example, elderly individuals are at risk of developing a B12 deficiency because as stomach acid decreases, food is not effectively broken down and absorption of vitamin B12 is impaired. Supplementation tends to solve the deficiency since the problem is one more of digestion than assimilation.
Hopefully, you’re aware that detoxification is something the body does daily. We have a finely tuned ability to eliminate toxins and waste products. The catch is that detoxification is a very nutrient-dense process. When nutritional status is depleted due to any of the reasons mentioned on this list, our ability to eliminate toxins is impaired. Check it out:
There are three phases of detoxification that require adequate vitamins, minerals, amino acids, water, and fiber for minimal function. During phase 1 detoxification the liver filters toxins out of the blood and attaches a mineral or vitamin to them. This creates a volatile, reactive oxygen species that must enter phase 2 detox to avoid doing damage to cells and DNA. During phase 2, an amino acid attaches itself to the toxin so that it is bound by a vitamin/mineral and an amino acid. Now the toxin is ready to go to phase 3 detox where it can be eliminated via the urine or feces.
Without sufficient nutrients, toxins don’t proceed from phase to phase efficiently and can break free, causing damage to the body and increasing your toxic load. This is why people who do juice detoxes often feel terrible since they aren’t supplying sufficient nutrients for elimination and toxins are recirculating in their bloodstream.
#9: Increased Nutrient Needs Due To A Disease State
The body has built-in mechanisms for preserving nutrients during malnutrition. But wouldn’t you rather supply your body with what it needs so that it doesn’t need to waste energy reabsorbing and manufacturing protective nutrients that you can get from food?
Additionally, there are certain health issues that raise nutrient needs so that the body can’t keep up. For example, the high insulin levels typical in diabetics impair reabsorption of magnesium in the kidneys, exacerbating deficiency in this mineral.
Alcohol use, cancer, and GI problems such as Crohn's disease or irritable bowel syndrome can all increase nutrient requirements.
#10: Heavy Training
Exercise increases requirements for nutrients involved in energy metabolism and stress management. Protein requirements are also increased. If you’re suffering from prolonged muscle soreness, low energy, or reduced training drive, you probably aren’t getting all the nutrition you need from your diet.
Magnesium, zinc, and iron are just a few of the nutrients that are often depleted when the body must manufacture ATP (the energy currency produced in the mitochondria) at rapid rates. The high cortisol that coincides with intense endurance training also raises nutrition needs.
To Supplement of Not To Supplement?
Once you realize you need to increase your intake of certain nutrients, how to start?
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as picking up a vitamin bottle at the grocery store.
You have probably heard about some of the problems with supplement quality: Supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA, which means there is nothing stopping the average Joe from chopping up a bunch of house plants, sticking them in a capsule, bottling it, slapping a label on it, and selling it.
In 2015, the, New York State attorney general found that 80 percent of herbal supplements from Walmart, Walgreens, Target, and GNC contained none of the herbs listed on their labels. In most cases, the supplements contained cheap fillers like rice, beans, peas, and house plants.
Another problem is absorbability. Many companies choose the cheapest form of a nutrient to put into their supplements. For example, mineral salts are cheaply sourced but poorly absorbed in the GI tract. Magnesium oxide is a perfect example of a cheap mineral salt that the body can’t absorb well. Instead, you want to look for chelated magnesium that is bound with an amino acid. The body recognizes these chelates as amino acids, which allows for better absorption. Magnesium bound with glycine (glycinate) and taurine (taurate) are two examples of high-quality magnesium chelates.
Obviously, it’s essential that you find a high-quality supplement company that produces nutrients in their most absorbable form. To give you guidance on what to look for, this list provides ten tips for buying high quality supplements.
The next step is to identify the blind spots in your diet. Working with a skilled nutritionist or functional medicine doctor will allow you to get blood tests to identify deficiencies and then craft a plan for plugging holes. We recommend taking a food first approach in which you start by planning your diet around the highest quality whole foods: Organic and pasture-raised meat and dairy, fish, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruit, and other plant foods. Supplementation can round out your nutrient needs and help you target any areas of concern such as excess stress, increased detoxification needs, or blood sugar issues.
If you need a roadmap for how to start, check out this article we wrote on the Top Five Supplements Everyone Should Take.