A provocative statement in this day and age where the health stores industry in Canada has an annual revenue of $3 billion and is expected to grow steadily¹. Nutrition research has highlighted individual nutrients and how they impact our health. News headlines shout trans fats, saturated fats, sodium, sugar, omega-3, calcium, probiotics and more. But as I stated in my previous post on sugar, you eat food NOT nutrients. Food is like an ecosystem of nutrients and other components (like antioxidants) that interact with each other in ways that we do not fully understand.
We simplify food into nutrients; but food is so much more complex than carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals functioning individually. All of these are chemicals. WHAT? YES! Chemicals. All matter we see and use are made of chemicals, which by the way does not mean artificial. And chemicals interact with each other in complex ways, that is what makes nutrition such a fascinating science…well to me at least.
So what happens when we remove a component of food from its environment? We can expect it to act differently, just like if you moved an animal from its natural environment. A bear in an enclosure will still have bear behaviours, but will not exhibit its full character as it would in the forest.
You may know of lycopene, an antioxidant that has been linked to reduced risk of both prostate cancer and heart disease². A review was completed on the effectiveness of lycopene from a supplement and from tomatoes (the highest dietary source) on heart disease risk factors. It found that lycopene from tomato products (food) provided a greater antioxidant effect than lycopene supplements². Another example is studies investigating the effect of omega-3 fatty acids reducing heart disease, which have also found that a dietary pattern higher in fatty fish and lower in red meat is more effective than omega-3 supplementation³,⁴,⁵.
Health claims of natural health products (NHPs) including nutrient supplements is a touchy subject. This is illustrated by the proposal of Health Canada to increase the level of evidence needed by the industry to make health claims on supplements, and the subsequent push back from the NHP industry and consumers. The goal of these new regulations is to ensure that if a health claim is present on an NHP label it is supported by scientific evidence to provide consumers with quality information when making health care decisions⁶. The reality is, a supplement by itself is not going prevent or cure diseases, the cause-and-effect relationship is much more complicated than that.
Rather than focusing on one species, why not focus on the entire ecosystem! Eating whole foods rather than relying on supplements for nutrients of interest provides an array of beneficial food components that interact together to improve our health. When we focus on creating healthier food habits rather than adding supplements to a rather unhealthy diet we are making overall healthier choices which bring additional benefits. For example, increasing intake of fish high in omega-3 can decrease intake of proteins higher in saturated fat.
I am not saying that there is never a purpose for nutrient supplements. Some health conditions, medications, life stages such as pregnancy, and eating patterns increase nutrient requirements or risk of nutrient deficiencies and require supplementation⁷,⁸. Consulting your health care provider can help you identify when you might need a supplement.
The message in a bottle: think critically. A supplement stating that it improves heart health doesn’t mean that on its own it will. Perhaps, instead, think of how you can add heart healthy foods everyday.
1. IBISWorld (2016). Health stores in Canada: Market research report. Retrieved from: http://www.ibisworld.ca/industry/default.aspx?indid=1057
2. Burton-Freeman, B.M., & Sesso, H.D. (2014). Whole food versus supplement: Comparing the clinical evidence of tomato intake and lycopene supplementation on cardiovascular risk factors. Advances in Nutrition, 5, 457-485.
3. Rizos, E.C., Evangelia, E.N., & Bika, E. (2012). Association between omega-3 fatty acid supplementation and risk of major cardiovascular disease events: A systematic review and meta-analysis. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 308(10), 1024-1033. Retrieved from: http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/1357266
4. Mente, A., de Koning, L., & Shannon, H.S. (2009). A systematic review of the evidence supporting a causal link between dietary factors and coronary heart disease. Archives of Internal Medicine, 169(7), 659-669. Retrieved from: http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/1108492?resultclick=1
5. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (2014). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Dietary fatty acids for healthy adults. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 114, 136-153.
6. Government of Canada (2016). Consulting Canadians on the regulation of self-care products in Canada. Retrieved from: http://healthycanadians.gc.ca/health-system-systeme-sante/consultations/selfcare-autosoins/document-eng.php
7. EatRight Ontario (2016). What you need to know about Vitamin D. Retrieved from: https://www.eatrightontario.ca/en/Articles/Vitamins-and-Minerals/What-you-need-to-know-about-Vitamin-D.aspx
8. The American Dietetic Association (2009). Position of the American Dietetic Association: Nutrient supplementation. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109, 2073-2085.