TO SUPPLEMENT OR NOT TO SUPPLEMENT – Part 1

Supplementing with vitamins has to be one of the most controversial nutrition topics. About 10 years ago I became an avid fan of consuming supplements, up to 13 capsules a day, including a multi-vitamin, vitamins A, B complex, C, D and E. It was through a reputable company based in the United States. Living in Mexico I would travel twice a year to load up on their products. I also subscribed to their monthly magazine which was of high quality and included very interesting articles on nutrition and health. About five years ago I became aware of something while reading a couple of the articles. That, although vitamins and minerals were emphasized as the means to prevent and reverse certain illnesses and diseases, foods that contain the specific vitamin or mineral were almost never mentioned as an option. Then, 2 or 3 pages later, I would see an add that would promote the vitamin or mineral supplement that corresponded to the article I had just read. Not only did I see this as a clever way for the business to promote their product but, as a whole food plant based advocate, I asked myself two questions: 1) If whole food plant based nutrition is supposed to provide all the vitamins I need to be in good health, why am I taking so many supplements? And 2) How healthy are supplements, anyway?

Dr. T. Colin Campbell is a world renowned biochemist and author of the NY Times Best Seller “The China Study”, which has sold over 2 million copies. The book is considered to be one the most comprehensive studies of nutrition ever conducted. His follow-up book “Whole, Rethinking the Science of Nutrition”, explains why, with all the overwhelming evidence showing that a whole food plant based diet is the healthiest human diet, that evidence is not being made readily available to the public? Why are so many people still confused about what to eat?

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Dr. Campbell uses the term “Reductionism” to explain the core of the problem with Western Medicine. As a reductionist you believe that everything can be understood if you understand it´s component parts. A wholist believes that the whole is greater than the sum of it´s parts. An example of this, is the famous Indian fable of the blind men explaining what an elephant is by feeling a particular part. In reality, you can only understand what an elephant is when you see the “whole” elephant.

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PHARMACEUTICAL DRUGS AND REDUCTIONISM

Before the advent of pharmaceutical drugs, whole plants were used to cure diseases. I remember living with a group of friends in the small village of Xcalak, on the Mexican Caribbean. It was 1967 and one of the group came down with malaria. There were no doctors in the village and since it was a good eight hour sailboat ride to the State capital, Chetumal, the villagers often had to depend on the curative property of the local plants and herbs that grew there. So, we took our friend to the woman who was trained in this herbal knowledge and she prepared a tea from one of the native plants. The result: In 9 days the malaria was gone.

Why am I telling you this?

Well, as scientists began to study the curative power of plants, it occurred to them that maybe they could extrapolate the specific ingredient in the plant that cured the ailment…and reproduce it chemically, in the laboratory. This is a form of reductionism…believing that the specific ingredient was equivalent to the “whole” plant. What´s the difference? Well, when our friend drank the tea, during those 9 days, there were no side effects. Today, with chemically produced medicines, it´s hard to find one without side effects…some very serious and even fatal.

SUPPLEMENTS AND REDUCTIONISM

Note: I would like to make it clear that I´m referring to vitamin and mineral supplements, not certain herbal supplements (i.e., ginger, turmeric, curcumin, etc.).

Homo sapiens, over their millions of years of existence, have always eaten whole foods. Then, during the 1980s, the supplement industry emerged. The goal, just like with the pharmaceutical industry was to prove that individual vitamins and minerals was the equivalent to the vitamins and minerals in the whole food. In other words, a vitamin C supplement would be equivalent to the vitamin C in a whole apple. Is that true?

According to Dr. Campbell,

“The natural health community has also fallen prey to the ideology that chemicals ripped from their natural context are as good or better than whole foods. Instead of synthesizing the presumed “active ingredients” from medicinal herbs, as done for prescription drugs (often with warnings of life threatening side effects), supplement manufacturers seek to extract and bottle the active ingredients from foods known or believed to promote good health and healing. And just like prescription drugs, the active agents function imperfectly, incompletely and unpredictably, when divorced from the whole plant food from which they´re derived or synthesized. The process of nutrition is profoundly wholistic, in that the way a body uses a particular nutrient depends on what other nutrients are ingested along with it. If we just take an isolated vitamin C pill, we miss out on the cast of “supporting characters” that may give vitamin C it´s potency. Even if we add many of these characters into the pill too, which some manufacturers have done with bioflavonoids, we are still assuming that whatever is in the apple and not in the pill is somehow not important.”

One of the problems of depending on supplements to provide us with the nutrition we need is that we can believe that we´re “off the hook”, with regards to eating the right foods. As long as we take our “magic” pill, we can binge on hot dogs, French fries and ice cream.

Coming up, part 2 of TO SUPPLEMENT OR NOT TO SUPPLEMENT

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