On the Table

Get your nutrients from real food

CORRESPONDENTNovember 9, 2011 

The supplement scam continues to unfold.

For anyone who has missed the news over the past few weeks, continuing scrutiny of the science adds more evidence that, with few exceptions, nutritional supplements provide no health benefits to healthy adults, and they may even cause harm. For most people, this probably ranks up there as the biggest nutrition surprise of the decade.

It's mixed news. On one hand, it isn't every day that the latest information saves you money.

On the other hand, you can't any longer count on a multivitamin and mineral supplement for added nutritional insurance. It's time to get serious about improving the quality of your diet.

The appeal of nutritional supplements goes way back, at least as far back as snake oil. It's an irresistible notion that something so easy to swallow might patch over the nutritional gaps in your diet.

I've written for years about the lack of evidence for the efficacy of supplements, most recently here: onthetable.net/supplements-Feb09.html. I take no supplements, aside from those I get in fortified foods like cold breakfast cereals and almond milk.

I just do the best I can to eat as well as possible.

Nature is best

That's because there doesn't yet seem to be a way to replicate what nature has provided in whole foods. The nutrients - such as vitamins and minerals - in fruits, vegetables, grains and other real foods appear to act differently when they're all together than when they are isolated from each other and concentrated in amounts not naturally found in whole foods.

And supplements don't even include the full range of nutrients we know support health. They also don't contain the ones we don't know about yet.

The better bet is to get what you need from your meals. Get the vitamin E from a big serving of greens instead of a gel cap.

This was, in fact, the original idea behind the old Basic Four Food Groups. Foods were lumped into those groupings based on their nutrient profiles.

Grains were rich in B vitamins; fruits and vegetables were high in vitamins A and C. The thinking was that by eating foods from each category, you increased the chances of getting the full range of nutrients you needed.

Today's food guides are a variation on the same theme. It's a simplistic approach, but it's more effective than deconstructing foods and trying to fit the good parts into a tablet.

Make it colorful

A colleague once suggested that people can find the nutritional variety they need like this: Eat a variety of stems, leaves, fruits, flowers, seeds and roots.

I take a slightly different tack, but it's just as easy. I aim for a colorful plate.

I like yellow, green, red, and orange, and I add a little purple or black for contrast. Color blocks are good predictors of the nutrients inside the foods.

Dark green equals vitamins A and C, calcium and folate, among others. Deep orange means more A and C and potassium, too.

Brown, nutty-flavored whole grains are rich sources of riboflavin, niacin, thiamin and iron.

And, remember: Eat foods as close to their natural state as possible. A purple berry is rich in health supporting phytochemicals and dietary fiber. A purple-colored jelly bean contains sugar and not much else.

Let this latest cold water thrown onto the supplement craze serve as a wake-up. You're better off getting your good nutrition from an improved diet.

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a licensed, registered dietitian and clinical associate professor in the Departments of Health Policy and Management and Nutrition in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Send questions and comments to suzanne@onthetable.net.

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