Whole Food Vs. Supplements: Don't Lose The Synergy

Posted by Jennie Ann Freiman MD on

Whole foods are nutrient dense, unprocessed and unrefined, and whole food diets are recognized for their role in preventing chronic disease. Whole food is much more than the sum of its individual components because diverse nutrients interact in interdependent, complex synergies that increase health benefits. Supplements tend to be reductive lab creations, often synthetic, the result of deconstructing food into fragments of “active ingredients” in endless pursuit of the magic bullet that will outperform nature. Both safety and efficacy matter. As the food vs supplement debate continues, science has weighed in on these 5 examples:

Fish oil vs. fish: Of all non-vitamin, non-mineral products, fish oil is the most commonly consumed supplement in the U.S., generating over 1 billion dollars annually. Studies of dietary fish have shown a reduction in stroke risk, non-fatal and fatal coronary heart disease, heart failure and peripheral arterial disease, a reduction in recurrent breast cancer events, and a significant increase in prostate cancer survival. While some studies conflict, overall, fish oil supplements have disappointing results. They don't prevent secondary cardiovascular events or reduce stroke, and don't lower breast cancer recurrence or all-cause mortality in breast cancer patients. Possible explanations for the ineffectiveness of fish oil supplements include poor absorption, absence of the “food displacement” effect of diet (eating fish means eating less potentially detrimental food such as red meat), the prevalence of poor quality supplements, and, as researchers concluded, “single nutrients may have limited effects on chronic disease outside of their original food sources.” Eating  5 - 6 oz of cold water, fatty fish twice weekly (anchovy, sardine, herring, mackerel, salmon, halibut) is recommended. Wild-caught fish is better because the amount of fish oil in farmed fish has steadily declined as the aquaculture industry skimps on the quality of fish meal fed to captives.

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Probiotics vs. Fermented And Cultured Foods: The gut is at the center of immunity and brain health, and is involved in the proper function of all body systems. Fermentation is an ancient practice, dating back to 6000 B.C. and has been used across every culture for food preservation and safety, and as medicine. Enter the reductionists, who successfully have grown probiotic sales to another 1 billion plus annual industry. Probiotics are touted for their health benefits in inflammatory bowel disease, auto-immune disorders, skin conditions, vaginal and oral health, weight loss, allergies, mood disorders and autism, but the best evidence for their usefulness is in infectious and antibiotic-related diarrhea. Consumer Lab testing of commonly used probiotics found differences between the stated and actual microbial content, possibly due to failed temperature control during shipping and warehousing. Other concerns with probiotics include whether the product survives stomach acid, limited information on effective dosage, and the need to define which specific strains work for a given health outcome. Fermented food has been acted upon by natural bacteria to create an array of healthful enzymes, minerals, B vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids (as found in fish oil). It’s resistant to harmful effects of stomach acid, and assists with absorption of other foods, making nutrients more bio-available. Most importantly, eating fermented foods offers a much broader diversity of beneficial bugs when compared to those in commercially produced probiotics. There is no RDA for probiotics.

Calcium: Calcium supplementation for bone health has been medical dogma for many years despite the US Preventative Services Task Force concluding calcium pills don’t prevent hip fractures in most people. It was known that calcium supplementation can cause kidney stones, but the shocking news came when we learned it significantly increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke. Investigators warned, “the non-skeletal risks of calcium supplements appear to outweigh any skeletal benefits.” Dietary sources of calcium have not been shown to prevent hip or forearm fractures, but, importantly, calcium rich foods are cardioprotective and don’t increase kidney stone formation. It’s proposed that calcium supplements raise vascular risk by causing an abrupt rise in blood calcium, which may then be stored in blood vessel walls. Dietary sources of calcium that can help meet the RDA of 1000 - 1200 mg are available from the NIH Facts Sheets For Foods.

Lycopene vs. Tomatoes: Lycopene is an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory compound that has been studied in brain, eye, bone and heart health, and as a cancer-preventive. A review of human clinical trials evaluating whole food tomato vs. supplement intake concluded tomato-based foods should be the first line approach for cardiovascular health. Food outperformed lycopene supplements in all cardiovascular endpoints studied, except for blood pressure. The researchers said: “History indicates that single-nutrient approaches often fail and on occasion are harmful.” Tomato sauce consumption was shown to lower the incidence of prostate cancer, and dietary lycopene intake was found to be inversely related to invasive breast cancer incidence and protective against lung cancer, especially in current smokers. The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database effectiveness rating lists all potential benefits of lycopene supplements as “insufficient evidence to rate effectiveness.” A patent-protected whole food tomato extract extols its benefit of coming from whole food but uses chemical processing for extraction. A daily RDA has not been established for lycopene.

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Curcumin vs. Turmeric: The role of turmeric for traditional medicinal use in East Asian cultures has been confirmed by abundant scientific, peer-review. Curcumin is the most well studied component of turmeric and now has a number of patent-protected versions with various claims. Whole turmeric root has three components: curcuminoids, turmerone oils and polysaccharides. Turmerone oils increase the absorption of curcumin, a scientifically validated synergy that is lost in curcumin-only supplements. The antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and other wellness supporting action of turmerones and the polysaccharides are also missing from curcumin-only supplements. Turmeric is a nutrient powerhouse that should not be deconstructed. Dietary intake is preferable, but if not possible due to dislike for its strong taste, an unprocessed whole food supplement can be a good choice. There is no RDA for turmeric. The University of Maryland recommends 1 - 3 grams daily of turmeric powder or 1.5 - 3 grams daily for fresh cut root.

A well rounded, whole food diet is the best source of nutrients and boasts synergies that can prevent and manage disease. Supplements were always meant to support diet, not replace it. Increasingly, supplements are becoming drug-wannabees by isolating and concentrating one or a few compounds and targeting specific conditions instead of focusing on promoting wellness. Unprocessed, clean labeled, organic whole food supplements make the most sense for supporting dietary gaps.

Disclaimer: This article was created for informational purposes only, is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Oobroo™ Inc or its staff.

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