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Do we really need supplements?

With the growing trend of supplements rising each and every year, it’s natural that you might feel skeptical about the latest trending nutrient extracts or powders that appear on your social media feed – shouldn’t we be able to get all the nutrients we need from food, anyway? From an evolutionary perspective, this question makes total sense. But unfortunately with modern diets, it’s not that simple.

The truth is that in our modern lives, supplements have become more helpful than ever – not only when it comes to optimizing our health and wellbeing, but for maintaining normal body function. Supplements play an important role in helping us meet our daily nutrient needs that we can’t obtain from the typical westernized diet. And even if we could achieve this through diet alone, it turns out there are more factors at play that create these nutritional gaps.

Factors that influence nutrient status

Soil depletion

Soil is vital for human survival. Almost 99% of the world’s daily food consumption can be traced back to the soil where it was cultivated. Today, one third of the Earth’s soil is considered at least moderately degraded worldwide due to the rapid growth in the human population and intense farming practices – leading to a significant decline in its nutrients and microbial ecosystems. Intensive agricultural methods strip the soil of both of these in order to meet the increasing demands of our growing populations. Plants incorporate these minerals into their cells as they grow and without nutrient-rich soils, the nutrient content of the plants that make up a whole food diet becomes compromised.

One study analyzed the nutritional content of crops from 1950 in comparison to 1999. The study revealed that while some nutrients were unchanged, important nutrients like calcium, iron, riboflavin and vitamin C were lower in 1999 when compared to 1950, with the decline in these nutrients ranging from 6-38%.

This is not at all to say that there’s no benefit to adding fruits and vegetables to your plate because whole food will always nutritionally trump highly processed foods. But is observed that the food our ancestors once farmed and ate were much more nutritionally rich than what we are eating today, and there was a time when you probably could receive all the nutrients you need from food alone.

High-processed foods

highly-processed, hyper palatable foods are vast on our supermarket shelves and in our homes. We’re not talking about the processing involved in creating foods like olive oil or vegetables in different forms (frozen or canned), but the industrialized over-processing that impacts the nutritional content of the food itself. These ‘foods’ are altered from their original state, manipulated with additives and chemicals, and by the time they reach supermarket shelves, their nutritional value is often completely devoid. Examples of highly processed foods include sugary soft drinks, reconstituted meat products, sweetened breakfast cereals, packaged snacks, etc.

Convenience over nutrition status

With our fast-paced modern lives and the stress that follows, convenience often trumps nutrition. For many people, opting for ultra-processed foods is simply easier and more budget friendly than preparing wholesome meals . While there is a perception of privilege that comes with making healthier food choices and eating well, it isn’t accessible to a lot of us, there are a large population of people who reach for ultra-processed foods on the grocery shelves as a matter of convenience and cost. From packaged snacks and sweets to frozen meals and takeout, the convenience of reaching for something pre-prepared saves time, money and energy we don’t have.

Stress

The stress response comprises a series of reactions involving the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. When the stress response is activated, adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol increase to help the body rise to the challenge (perceived or not). While this response is essential for human functioning, the ongoing activation of the HPA axis is associated with disruption to the body’s normal balance. Studies show that ongoing stress can influence the body’s nutrient stores, leaving the body depleted of key micronutrients responsible for energy production, enzymatic activity, immunity and tissue growth and repair. Some key nutrients identified include magnesium, zinc, iron, calcium and niacin.

The Role of Supplements in Bridging Nutritional Gaps

While they should never be considered as a substitute for a healthy, balanced diet – Studies show that in our modern lives, we can’t get away from a need for supplementation. Supplements provide a way for us to meet our daily nutritional needs while we live in an environment that isn’t conducive to easily meeting these needs with diet alone. If you are perfectly healthy, don’t get stressed, eat only organic foods, consume plenty of wild-caught fish, spend enough (but not too much!) time in the sun, have no allergies that require you to cut out specific foods, enjoy eating all food groups, avoid environmental toxins, eat enough red meat and filter your water – you probably have your bases covered. But if you’re the average person that struggles to achieve this lifestyle daily – you may benefit from bridging these gaps in your diet with supplementation.

Common nutrient deficiencies

Iron

This crucial mineral is involved in many critical functions within the body, including creating red blood cells which carry oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body. While the main responsibility of this mineral is to transport oxygen in the blood, it's also crucial for growth and development, among many other functions.

There are two types of iron – heme iron (iron derived from animal sources), and non-heme iron (iron derived from plant-based sources). The body doesn’t absorb non-heme iron as well as it absorbs heme iron, which means that vegetarians or those who largely follow a plant-based diet will need to reach for double the recommended daily intake to make up for the lack of absorption.

B12

Like iron, B12 plays a critical role in the production of red blood cells, which deliver oxygen to the rest of the body. Like all B vitamins, B12 acts as a coenzyme in the energy production process. It’s required for converting protein and fat into energy for the body to function, and it’s also essential for DNA synthesis and cell division. B12 is a vitamin that crosses over into many other important functions, and getting enough of it helps to maintain brain function and development, and supports neurological health. If you don’t eat a lot of dairy or animal products, have a history of digestive complications and experience fatigue, you may be more prone to deficiency.

Magnesium

Magnesium is an essential mineral involved in over 600 reactions in the body. It has far-reaching effects that benefit energy production, brain health, cardiovascular function, sleep, athletic performance and so much more. Studies suggest that the typical US adult gets less than 50% of the daily recommended intake of magnesium, and as the fourth most abundant mineral in the body – a deficiency in magnesium can be problematic to your health. As a cofactor in so many biochemical reactions within the body, magnesium is key for many processes involved in energy and performance.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that takes a few forms. Vitamin D3 is called cholecalciferol. Vitamin D is important in the body for bone health, immunity, muscles, and the nervous system. It also plays a key role in the absorption of dietary calcium and helps to maintain the amount of calcium in your blood to help strengthen your bones and prevent muscle cramps and spasms. Around 42% of people in the US may be deficient in vitamin D, and this number increases to 74% in older adults.

Iodine

Affecting almost one third of the population, iodine deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies. Found mostly in soil and sea water, this essential mineral is crucial for the production of thyroid hormones, which are involved in many important functions from growth and brain development to maintaining metabolic rate.

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