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Nutritional Supplements - A Dissenter's View by Kath Clements, Vegan Views 93 (Summer 2002)

As new legislation on nutritional supplements unfolds across Europe, and retailers are tailoring their products and bracing themselves for possible legal test cases, this article is actually about whether we need nutritional supplements at all.

When the movement towards wholefood and organic eating had a resurgence in the 1960s and 70s (one of several such resurgences in the last couple of centuries!) many people started eating more wholegrain foods, and they also started thinking about vegetarianism. The word 'organic' was used widely in this 'alternative' culture, but not as it is used today, to denote a method of food production. It was used to describe anything (a thought, a process, a product, an event) which had evolved in what was considered to be a 'natural' or a 'wholistic' way. 'Organic', in fact - at least for the rebels / visionaries / drop-outs of the time - was the flavour of the moment. They ate wholefoods. They became vegetarian. They wore loose clothes and liberated their bodies. I almost dare say, of those that did the above, that they became healthy. But most of them did not take supplements, which simply were not available to a wide market and, in any case, were not 'organic'.

Sadly all good things come to an end, usually because they are killed or swallowed by the various arms and mouths of capitalism. Capitalism can't bear to see people staying healthy on unprocessed food and water alone - there's not enough profit in that! So it invents SUPPLEMENTS! It provides statistics to show that intensively farmed agricultural land has diminishing amounts of naturally occurring minerals and - hey presto! - we all need nutritional supplements! And so successful has this idea been that in the UK alone the market for nutritional supplements was worth £376 millions in 2001, with an additional £60 - £70 millions in 'direct sales' (pyramid - type marketing, networking, etc.) You will be lucky to come away from a consultation with a practitioner of nutritional medicine, or indeed from a sign-up with a networking company, without being poorer by a three figure sum.

There is an interesting parallel here with what capitalism has done to our 'heads' since the 1970s. Just when we imagined that our rejection of consumerism signalled our freedom from old-fashioned constraints and the bonds of 'normality', computer technology enabled manufacturers to supply a vast array of consumer products undreamed of in the previous era of mass factory production - hence we were given the illusion of freedom of choice whilst still being consumer slaves. End of revolt!

In the case of nutritional supplements, do we really need this huge array of factory and laboratory produced products? Do they really protect us from colds, infections, osteoporosis, heart disease, cancer and the whole range of degenerative diseases of our times? Is heart disease something which is lurking out there to attack us as soon as our defence is down? Does it really work like this? Or is perhaps the marketing machine producing more and more 'designer' supplements in order to feed our hypochondria, giving us once more the illusion of individual worth and choice?

We certainly do need minerals and vitamins, but we need them in their organic form, as they occur in plants. Naturally occurring vitamins and minerals in our food are very different from those which have been factory processed, even if they have been processed with organic compounds (i.e. compounds produced from carbon). The science of nutrition is in its infancy. Most clinical nutritional knowledge comes from experiments on animals, which come nowhere near to replicating the enormous variety of contributory factors in human health. Moreover, nutrients in food come packaged with a whole array of accessory vitamins, minerals trace minerals, enzymes, co-enzymes and other nutrients about which little is yet known. Nutrients are still being discovered (some think that as yet we are only aware of a tiny proportion), and even with current knowledge it is clear that all nutrients work in association with 8-10 other factors. It is therefore obvious that any supplementation programme which uses packaged vitamins and minerals (as opposed to supplementation with a whole 'superfood' such as algae or sprouted grains) will create some sort of imbalance, because the accessory nutrients - some of which have not yet been discovered - will inevitably be lacking, even in a multi-mineral/vitamin cocktail.

I personally have come to the view that, whilst there is possibly a case for supplementation in cases of evident specific deficiency and in certain illnesses, this should be for a limited period only and it should be understood that some form of imbalance will be operating during this period. Our nutrition should come from a variety of fresh and whole food - and how strange it is even to have to say that!

People who sell supplements will tell you that because food today is denatured by intensive farming and food processing, and because we can't all be sure that we are getting correctly balanced meals all the time, we need to buy their supplements. They say that our food is deficient, so we need to add in what is missing. But do our bodies really work like that? Natural hygienists and naturopathic doctors would say not.

Digestion is an active process, not a passive one. It is not a case of what is 'put in', but more a case of what our bodies 'take out' of the food we give them, before our digestive systems eject (or store away) what they don't need.

Nature presents nutrients in a way that our bodies can recognise and utilise - that is, in whole, fresh foods. Each fruit or green leaf is a whole orchestra of proteins, carbohydrates, essential fats, vitamins, minerals, trace minerals, enzymes and co-enzymes, which support each other in the complex processes of digestion and absorption. There is no need to replicate this (indeed it is quite impossible). The attempt to analyse food nutrients, isolate them and mix them back together again, seems to me purely absurd.

What we need to do, then is to improve our digestion and absorption with good food, pure water, fresh air and all the other components of health (including the mind/spirit connection) whilst remembering that we always compromise our body's ability to absorb nutrients when we consume refined foods (especially sugar and wheat) and when we use antibiotics (which destroy the micro-organisms needed for digestion). What we do not need to do is to assault our systems with an array of chemicals designed in a laboratory and which our systems are not prepared to receive. It is not our role to manage the levels of minerals etc carried in our blood plasma, since our bodies are perfectly designed to do that for us.

Take the mineral magnesium (and you may well be doing just that if you are a middle aged person who has been sold the fear of osteoporosis). Magnesium occurs in all green leaves. It is part of the chlorophyll molecule. Without magnesium a leaf cannot be green, end of story. And the magnesium in the leaf is in an easily assimilated organic form, even if the vegetable was not 'organic' grown - it comes together with a complex combination of other minerals and trace minerals to which our bodies have become receptive over the millennia of evolutionary time. No state of the art supplements manufacturer can replicate this, and no supplement will truly make up for the lack of eating well, just as coffee will not make up for the lack of sleep and sunlamps will not make up for the lack of fresh air.

Optimum levels of mineral intake are simply not known with certainty - RDAs and RNIs are actually based on average intake, rather than proven need, and hence they vary between countries (and, in the case of trace minerals, recommendations are controversial to say the least.) Far better to let the body select what it needs from the food eaten than to pump in additional chemicals. It is extremely easy on a fresh and varied wholefood diet to obtain and exceed all the identified RDAs. And here lies one of the potential dangers of factory produced supplements. They may actually reduce the body's efficiency in absorbing nutrients. It has been established, for instance, that the lower the intake of the mineral calcium in the diet, the greater becomes the body's efficiency in absorbing it. Could it be possible, then, that by spoonfeeding ourselves with minerals, we disarm our body's powers of absorption?

Yes, of course there is some evidence that nutritional supplements 'work', but perhaps it is misunderstood exactly how this is so. A naturopathic view is that they may work by over-stimulating parts of the system (and there is a parallel here with prescription drugs), thus leading inevitably to cellular exhaustion and premature ageing. Moreover, by providing in excess of what is actually required, they certainly put extra strain on the liver and kidneys, which have to process and excrete or store what we don't need.

If someone is truly malnourished and in poor shape (whilst still consuming sufficient calories), then clear results may be expected from supplementation - but if this is brought about by supplements only, rather than a change of lifestyle, then the long term results will not be good. This actually is the other main danger of supplementation - people feel that if they are using expensive supplements which are meant to give all round 'protection' then they don't have to bother so much with their diet and lifestyle - and that really is a dangerous state of affairs! There are no quick fixes, and our health really does depend on many variables including, mainly, our own input. It would be nice to think that we could find our elixir in a bottle - as the majority still seem to keep hoping to find it by means of their doctors' prescriptions - but, really, we can't.

"In the end no one will sell you what you need. You can't buy it off the shelf, you got to grow it from the seed" Chris Smither

Some of the above is a combination of personal observation, speculation and common sense, whilst the general thinking is influenced by that of the Natural Hygiene movement. We must all make up our own minds about nutritional supplements, and if we do decide to try them we should be aware of these arguments and also aware of exactly how the products are being 'sold' to us. There is a huge choice out there, and also a range in quality. Information about the product should be freely available from the manufacturers, and in fact one of the quality guidelines should be the willingness of the producer to supply this information. Vegans especially may wish to press hard. (One of the most successful 'multi-level' marketing companies, in its distributors' magazine, recently described its glucosamine as a 'herbal' product!) We need to separate out information about the product from the enthusiasm of the person with a vested interest who is selling it to us, and from the placebo effect on ourselves (perhaps the most difficult of all). And if you do decide to take them I should end by saying, because you'll need it, good luck!

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Cross-reference: Nutrition and Health