Last week I did an interview with Josh Boughton on the inadequacies of many of the supplements sold today.
A natural reaction to this type of story is to ask the question of whether or not people should take supplements at all. This attitude was expressed in the comments of the article I linked to above.
Common critiques against supplements and “health” products in general is that there’s ultimately no substitute for real food, most of them are wastes of money, and at the very least can’t deliver the benefits they promise.
The above points are all true. The majority of supplement companies no doubt suffer from bad marketing, and I’m of the opinion that the majority of people don’t need to take any supplements out of necessity. Myself included.
Why Take Supplements At All?
So with that out of the way, what argument is there to be made, if any, that people ought to take supplements?
I think the most important concept is that you can believe all the above points I just mentioned and still make a reasonable choice to take out your credit card when you visit GNC.
Consider the following:
- Even if most supplements aren’t necessary, it doesn’t mean there aren’t at least a few that you’d benefit from taking.
- The biggest travesty of most supplements is that they overstate their benefits, not so much that they’re genuinely bad. People might be skewing the cost/benefit analysis, but they’re still helping themselves along some dimension (most of the time).
- We live in an environment that’s fundamentally different from long ago, so it’s a reasonable belief that some deviations from a purely “natural state” are necessary for optimum health.
- The composition of our food is probably different from the wild cultivars we traditionally ate, so adding some supplements to increase the nutrient density of our diet makes sense for people who want to prevent illness and increase longevity.
- The point that you could get everything you need from a supplement through traditional diet is technically correct, but a non-sequitur when it comes to whether or not anyone should consider buying one. You could take it upon yourself to self-supply a lot of the things you buy, but most of us don’t and for good reason. It makes much more sense to simply get it from someone who specializes in producing it.
The sorts of environmental exposure we get today is different in important ways from that of the past. In general it’s more chronic and less fractal, for better or worse. Instead of regularly being exposed to a wide variety of pathogens and bacteria from living in dirt, we spend most of our days in a sterilized environment with consistent but low-intensity exposure to by-products of synthetic processes like phthalates and xenobiotics which might disrupt hormonal regulation.
Instead of living through daily variations in temperature and weather conditions we waltz through our life from one temperature controlled room to another. Instead of having daily splits between sunlight and nighttime, we spend almost every conscious hour under the presence of artificial light which might disrupt circadian rhythms.
And of course, we’re confronted with a 24/7 access to calories and savory foods when every living organism has evolved to thrive under conditions where calories were scarce and subject to large seasonal variations in supply.
Now to be clear, I’m not saying all this is bad. In fact I think just the opposite. I’m writing this article on a fancy-pants laptop I just bought while sipping a $3 cup of mass produced coffee in a pair of clothes that was probably sewn together by complete strangers living in southeast Asia.
If I really thought the Paleolithic era was the way to go I’d sell all my earthly possessions, build my own cabin in the woods, and run around trying to bash deer with tree branches in a loin cloth. Hell will freeze over before that happens. As Matt Ridley aptly pointed out, self-sufficiency is poverty. I’d much rather make tweaks to the modern world I live in than get rid of it altogether.
How Different Is Our Food?
So this discussion naturally leads to the question of how much the composition of our food has changed over the years.
The answer is that it still fills the same basic function, but it probably has changed quite a bit.
In general farming practices over the millennia selected for yield and taste, and not for nutrients. In fact, taste and nutrients almost act like a see-saw. The majority of phytonutrients that are necessary for human health are bitter and astringent…..so they were probably what farmers were actively trying to get rid of when they sowed their next batch of crops.
A good example would be the Pima Indians (pictured above). Before they got shooed off into reservations and rationed Standard American Diet crap by the government they were a model of good health. They ate mostly wild corn, potatoes, acorns, and beans supplemented with occasional fish, cacti, and seeds.
It turns out the differences between the carbs they eat and the carbs westerners eat are pretty dramatic. Pima carbohydrates produce an insulin response that’s a small fraction of what commercial cereals create.
Wild corn is very different from cultivated corn. It comes in many colors, is much less sweet, and has a vitamin and mineral content that’s many multiples higher than what we get at the grocery store.
The plant that was bred into corn is called teosinte, and it looks and feels like a cactus more than the white corn we eat today:
This is basically true for most of the produce we eat. For example, a study that examined the nutrient content of 50 different breeds of potatoes found that phytonutrient content varied by more than 10-fold. And of course the color, variety and bitterness we’ve been trying to get rid produced an array of environmental stressors that have been standardized away.
Unlike other health food pundits (if I can call myself that), I don’t like to demonize Big Ag. It’s really good at producing a lot of food with a limited amount of space and resources. There’s 7 billion people in the world so that’s all well and good. It’s not a coincidence that industrial farming happened at the very beginning of the industrial revolution. Not having to spend all day making food freed up mankind to do things like invent the steam engine, assembly line, and discover electricity. It’s the difference between me working 16 hour days toiling in a field somewhere and being able to write this article in an air-conditioned Starbucks. I’m not hating.
But it’s useful to acknowledge the point that its increasing share in the food supply has reshaped what our traditional diet does and does not do for us. And if you want to do whats best for your health you’ll probably need to think a little harder about how to go above and beyond the default foods that are put on your plate.
And for many of us that’ll mean taking a supplement or two.
What Supplements Should People Take?
So with all that said, what supplements are good bets for most people?
Without accounting for specific conditions people might have, I think the following are reasonable choices for an ordinary joe.
(Disclosure: I make and sell supplements for a living. So unfortunately I can’t be considered 100% unbiased no matter how hard I might try).
- Omega 3: I don’t think the omega3/6 ratio is as important as some others do. I’ve written why here. But people consume way more seed oils today than in the past, which are mostly omega 6. Of course the best way to improve this is by removing processed oils from your diet and not by adding a supplement.
- Probiotics: Dirt and bacteria were all around us before the turn of last century. Now our environment is very sterilized. That’s mostly good, but it likely means our guts might be “under colonized” relative to what’s best for human health. And I think it’s pretty clear that our bacterial flora play a crucial role in human health.
- Vitamin D: We don’t spend nearly as much in the sun as we ought to. Vitamin D supplements are tricky because many of them are not manufactured in a way that’s digested well by the body, but I think Vitamin D is one of the nutrients most people are not getting enough of.
- Condensed Whole Foods Powder: If you worry about the diversity and nutritional content of the food you eat then these make a lot of sense. They give you a wide sampling of different herbs and foods that’d be very difficult to replicate through diet alone. The powder form makes it much easier and cost effective to consume a bunch of stuff that’d otherwise be too expensive and cumbersome to eat on their own. (Disclosure: And in case you haven’t noticed, YES!, I do sell these so please take that for whatever it’s worth). If you want more insight on these supplements then please read my green and red superfood powder buying guides.
This list doesn’t mean everybody should take these all the time. Just that most people would probably receive a benefit from some sort of the above supplements most of the time. They all have natural counterparts that are more effective if you can get them, but the typical demands of modern life mean most of us usually don’t.
At some point spending an extra dollar on supplements is a waste of money. For some that might start at dollar $1. But the combination of how much you work, amount of disposable income you have, dietary preferences of you and your family, exercise habits, and physical environment make some form of supplementation a reasonable deal for a lot of people.
Just my $0.02.