The difference between supplements and whole foods
The nutrients in unprocessed whole-foods are in natural forms the body finds easy to recognise and process. They are also present in teams or groups that work together in cooperative ways to improve one anthers absorption and function in the body.
Vitamin A for example works best when it’s teamed up with vitamin B2, B3, B12, magnesium, selenium, manganese, potassium, phosphorus, carotenoids, iodine, tyrosine and zinc, amongst others. These nutrients are sometimes referred to as co-factors or synergistic nutrients for vitamin A. You’ve probably heard about the way vitamin C enhances iron absorption, right? This means that vitamin C is a co-factor for iron, and together vitamin c and iron and synergistic: they have a combined action that is more powerful and dynamic than either one on it’s own.
Synergism between nutrients isn’t something that is well understood by modern science, so even on those odd occasions when pharmaceutical companies actually attempt to create a synergistic supplement blend, it falls far short of natures design. You not only need to get the ingredients right, you need the correct ratios between them and the correct nutrient forms. We are are mere babes-in-the-woods when it comes to understanding the complexity of nutrition and we have barely scratched the surface when it comes to fully understanding the roles of various plant chemicals as nutrients, let alone the synergism between them.
Take some time to think about how long humanity has been co-evolving alongside nature, as part of nature, and you begin to realise the sophisticated relationship between plants and human bodies. When our body is looking for more vitamin A, for example, it’s not looking for an isolated nutrient provided in massive doses, out of context from the familiar whole. On the contrary, it’s looking for a group of plant chemicals called carotenoids (beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, and beta-crytoxanthin), which the body then converts to retinol, the active form of Vitamin A.
When a nutrient is provided to the body as part of a whole-food, the body is able to intelligently manage absorption, utilisation and excretion. The body can assess the current levels of that nutrient and the need for it, and adjust absorption levels to suit. If our levels of a nutrient are low, the body will absorb more. If our body levels of a nutrient are high, our body will absorb less. But this homeostatic approach to managing nutrition only works when we source our nutrients from whole-foods. Not when we source them from supplements. Supplements are valuable and necessary at times, but should not be considered in any way superior to actual food.
We tend to assume the supplemental form of Vitamin A will be better for us because it’s stronger, more effective, powerful. Less than 50% of beta-carotene from plant foods is converted to vitamin A, so surely the supplement is better? But more isn’t always better. You certainly wouldn’t want to overdose on supplemental vitamin A, or vitamin A from animal products, because you could damage your bones in the process! Vitamin A from whole plant foods on the other hand, is perfectly safe.
Many supplements we initially considered harmless are proving troublesome with hindsight. They really aren’t much different from drugs, when you think about it, and should be handled with the same caution. Pharmaceutical drugs are sometimes necessary, but we don’t pop them like lollies and assume they won’t do us any harm. Here’s a lovely quote from Harvard Medical School on this topic:
“We now know that super nutritional levels of vitamins taken as supplements do not emulate the apparent benefits of diets high in foods that contain these vitamins, and we now know that taking vitamins in super nutritional doses can cause serious harm.”