Why Healthy Eating Isn't Enough
There is no such thing as the perfect diet. You need to consume around 30 essential nutrients (more on that in a minute) for your body to function properly, and even if you eat perfectly, it’s nearly impossible to fulfill each nutrient’s daily requirement. That is why everyone stands to benefit from supplementation — it provides a healthy foundation and peace of mind that you’re getting what you need.
What is an essential nutrient? What functions do they support?
An essential nutrient, by definition, is one that cannot be synthesized by the body and therefore must be obtained from food. These nutrients are essential for growth, energy production, immunity support, digestion, cognition, and so much more. Essentially, these essential nutrients are necessary to function properly, and healthily.
Furthermore, vitamins, classified by either fat or water solubility, are organic compounds unable to be synthesized by the body that are necessary to sustain metabolism and life. They’re found in various foods like orange, kale, broccoli, fish, beans, etc. (That’s why it’s important to eat your veggies.)
What is a nutritional supplement?
A nutritional supplement is a product derived from either food or synthetic sources designed to provide the body with proper nutrition via vitamins, enzymes, amino acids, minerals, and herbs. Supplements help give us a robust nutritional foundation to fuel our bodies, and may at times be used as meal enhancements, complementing the food you eat every day. Some nutrients are better absorbed in supplement form than in natural form, providing another reason why supplementation is beneficial.
Why is supplementation beneficial?
Since WWII, data has shown that the nutritional value of our food has declined. Large-scale industrial farming, food shortages, soil depletion, processing and GMOs have changed the face of nutrition in America, so much so that many dietitians contend that you won’t be able to receive all your nutrients with just food alone, even if you eat healthfully. Therefore, using nutritional supplements has become a necessity to bridge the gap. That’s especially important when you consider bioavailability, or nutrient absorption — consuming a nutrient doesn’t mean it’s 100% absorbed. There are many factors that influence absorption, which we cover in depth here.
Supplementation isn’t a substitution for healthy eating by any means, but it is a supplementary, complementary element of your diet to ensure you are properly nourished. Think of supplementation as a long-term insurance policy to aid in prolonging your good health as you age.
Are nutrients absorbed differently from food and from supplements?
Synthetic nutrients and natural nutrients are absorbed differently in the body, for the most part. Because nutrients from food are in their most bioavailable form, they are typically absorbed into the body quite well. This is because whole food provides a more comprehensive nutrient source than nutrients that have been extracted, dehydrated and processed to create their synthetic form often found in supplements. And as dietitians, we are advocates of food-first nutrition — it is best to get your nutrients from real, whole foods. However, as discussed earlier, healthy eating simply isn’t enough, and that’s where supplements come in.
Thus, nutrients in supplement form are designed to mimic natural nutrients found in food. But some studies demonstrate that certain synthetic nutrients are absorbed similarly to natural nutrients, and others differ in their bioavailability in the body.
For example, vitamin C (found naturally in fruits and veggies) has similar bioavailability in either form. Whereas, folic acid, as a synthetic supplement has 100% bioavailability when ingested on an empty stomach and ~85% bioavailability when added to food, whereas natural folate, found in sunflower seeds and leafy greens, is thought to be ~50% bioavailable. In that case, the synthetic form is more bioavailable.
Absorbability is also determined by interactions between nutrients, hence the strategy behind the combinations of nutrients in First & Foremost supplements. In regards to both natural and synthetic nutrients, there are some nutrient combinations that inhibit optimal absorption when ingested. Having an empty stomach (or not), drinking coffee within a certain time of supplementation, combining different types of food can all affect nutrient bioavailability.
For example, let’s say you have cream with your coffee — the calcium in the cream will not be 100% absorbed into your body because the caffeine in the coffee inhibits calcium absorption.
Many factors impact a nutrient’s bioavailability: its form, its potency, and what it’s digested alongside, including food, drink, prebiotics and probiotics. The bottom line is: What you see on a supplement facts label is not always what your body actually absorbs.
Common deficiencies that merit supplementation
For every major life stage, your body needs a designated amount of each essential nutrient. This is called your Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) or in some cases (where an RDA has yet to be established), your Adequate Intake (AI). RDA & AI are carefully calibrated to ensure you’re getting enough, but not too much of a nutrient, and they’re determined by your age, gender and whether you’re pregnant.
Furthermore, according to the FDA’s list of nutrients of concern– which refers to the American population’s under-consumption of specific nutrients – potassium, calcium, iron, and vitamin D are top of mind. These nutrients provide essential functions for your body, which is why it is imperative to make sure you are reaching your RDA for each. With a deficiency, you may be subject to a host of health issues.'
While all 26 essential nutrients are imperative to consume, there are a few specifically critical ones. As women’s bodies change through their 20s and 30s, their bone health declines — calcium supplementation is a great counterbalance, which is why we offer it, spread across all three dayparts for best absorption. Adult males also stand to benefit especially from calcium, vitamin D and iron supplementationMen hit their peak bone mass — the bone tissue that makes up your bones and determines how strong they are — in their late 20s, after which bone density declines. After the skeleton is fully formed, that bone mass slowly declines into late adulthood. Similarly, muscle mass declines 3-8% a year after age 30, accelerating after 60. Supplementation can support bone density, muscle mass, and slow bone mass deterioration — all important for healthy aging.
You may look at supplement facts and find that some supplement companies approach RDA as a minimum, and will include far above the RDA in their product. But more is not always better. Consuming more than 100% of a nutrient’s RDA is unnecessary and potentially dangerous, because you can only absorb so much. If the body can’t process or excrete the excess, the nutrient accumulation can lead to toxicity. While many people are concerned they’re not getting enough of a nutrient, the dangers of over-supplementing are serious, causing harmful side effects and even death.