In the beginning there were healthy, whole foods and healthy lifestyles; people took responsibility for their own health. Now most of the world is dying from food related illness. Half the world is dying from not enough food and the other half from too much nutrient-depleted, calorie-dense food. Times have changed and so has the way we need to look at food, nutrition and our health. Chronic illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer are now the biggest killers in developed countries. The current medical model that focuses on treating, rather than preventing, illness is simply not working. As individuals we need to take responsibility for improving our health.
For years, a so-called debate has raged over the relative importance of dietary supplements as a means of maintaining good health and safeguarding against disease. The debate has, unfortunately, not relied on good science but rather has been fuelled by a very small number of quasi-scientific studies that have been fraught with controversy. Even the 'unbiased' research findings have often been misrepresented by the medical industry and by popular media in attempts to create the next controversy. Such an excess of misinformation has led to a strongly divided public and professional opinion on the place of supplements in our diet.
Most people should be taking supplements because eating a balanced diet all of the time and absorbing the required nutrients all of the time is almost impossible for people throughout the world. The argument for supplementation is easily summed up into several main areas: the first is that it is no longer possible to get all the nutrients that should be in our food. Through modern cropping, growing and harvesting techniques, transport, storage and marketing, not to mention processing and cooking, it is possible to lose 100% of the nutrient value of the food and, in its place, add toxins. This means that if it is not in the food we eat, we have to get it from supplementation.
The modern day processed 'white foods' such as sugar, bread, white rice and processed breakfast foods are full of empty calories and, often, extra sugar and are low in nutritional value. Unfortunately, these foods now make up a large portion of many people's food intake. Meanwhile, most people rarely consume their full share of fruit, vegetables, nuts and beans and other nutritious foods - or when they do consume vegetables it is usually in the form of over-processed potatoes without the nutrient-dense peel.
In addition to low-nutrient foods that make up our diets, we are now inundated with many new stressors, including environmental toxins and modern day stress that increase the body's need for nutrients. Food additives and contaminants, fluoride and aluminium added to water, increasing environmental toxins in our homes, and the effects of pollutants like environmental tobacco smoke, decrease our nutrient reserves and place increased stress and nutritional demands on our bodies.
Pregnancy and lactation is one period of increased physiological and metabolic demands as pregnant women require more energy and nutrients to meet the needs of the developing foetus. During this time, inadequate stores or intake of vitamins or minerals, referred to collectively as micronutrients, can have adverse effects on the mother, such as anaemia, hypertension, complications or even death during labour. Furthermore, the foetus can be affected, resulting in stillbirth, pre-term delivery, intrauterine growth retardation, congenital malformations, reduced immune-competence and abnormal organ development.
There are many subgroups within our population who are likely to have a significantly lower than average nutritional status. This may be a low-income group, the aged or maybe a group with a particular disease or disability. For example, there is a large number of growing disease conditions that reduce our ability to digest and absorb nutrients even when they are available in food. These range from the increasing stress that affects everyone to overeating, poor digestion, coeliac disease, irritable bowel and other inflammation diseases of the gut. An important fact to remember is that the nutrients have to get to the cells where the real work is done. If they don't contribute to cellular nutrition, they are worthless, no matter what you eat.
The science is overwhelming - with the publication of thousands of articles in all levels of scientific journals - on the benefits of supplementing, not only for the general population but also for specific illnesses and disease conditions. Unfortunately, these do not seem to get media attention despite the fact that they may show dramatic reductions in the incidence and severity of diseases such as heart attack, stroke, cancer, diabetes, asthma, Alzheimer's and many more.
In fact, most people do supplement, especially those who know the most. Our own research shows us that people who supplement are usually the people who have higher levels of education, enjoy a healthier diet and lifestyle and are more interested in health; these are people who are taking responsibility for their own health. Interestingly, many health professionals - despite what they may tell you when conforming to medical industry standards - take supplements. The increasing use of dietary supplements in general is one example of better health through preventative measures, which is a result of consumers wishing to take charge of their own health.
Far too much credit is given to the Recommended Daily Intakes (RDIs) of nutrients - the information on the side of your breakfast food box - as the guide to healthy nutrition. These guides are based on preventing acute nutrient shortages and helping basic growth, not preventing and treating modern day epidemics. There has been a big shift in thinking from the concept of "adequate nutrition," being all that is required, to "optimal nutrition" to help us flourish and be free of disease. We have chronic illness related to diet and nutrition in epidemic proportions and the so-called professionals say it is okay because some people meet the RDI levels. This is insanity! Our early nutrition models were great for preventing scurvy and pellagra, but not for the chronic illnesses that afflict so many now.
All too often even though the evidence is there it takes decades or even longer to get it through the wall of vested interests. Perhaps we can learn from history. In 1601, Captain James Lancaster gave lemon juice to his ship's crew, one of four ships in his fleet. The men on the three ships without lemon juice suffered terribly from scurvy and many of them died. Even though the benefits of lemon juice were well established on this and many other ships, it took nearly two centuries - during which time nearly one million men died from scurvy - before the British government adopted and implemented this cure.
More recently, it took two Australian doctors almost a decade to get their evidence accepted that a simple bacteria, Helicobacter pylori, which can be easily treated with a short-term dose of antibiotics, is a major culprit in stomach inflammation and ulcers, not too much acid and stress. This finding threatened the very lucrative antacid treatment and the egos of many medical professionals who had been recommending drugs for the past 30 years to treat the symptoms of gastritis and peptic ulcer disease. The doctors were recognised and later awarded a Nobel Prize in 2005 for their work after they infected themselves with the bacteria to develop ulcers then fixed it with simple antibiotics. Pretty harsh when you have to do that, but the medical profession would still treat gastritis and ulcers with ineffective drugs if the researchers had not gone to such drastic extremes.
The government supplements, so why can't we do the same? Despite their rhetoric, governments have been pro-supplementation through their fortification of breads and breakfast foods and salt. Governments all around the world have requirements for nutritional supplements to be added to foods - from vitamins B1, B2, B3 and B6 (pyridoxine) and iron in breads and cereals to iodine in salt. However, government's fortification efforts have been a bit myopic, ignoring the fact that nutrients work together. The B vitamin group are all water-soluble and often work together in the same metabolic pathways. So just supplementing with folate or B6 may mask, or even lead to, deficiencies in other B vitamins such as B12. In nature, iron is often associated with zinc; the food industry ignores this fact when supplementing breakfast foods with iron. And little do most consumers realise when they take zinc in breakfast cereal, the high phytate content of cereals binds it up, stopping its absorption into the body. The limits of government supplementation are further highlighted by the fact that the iron put in processed foods is not readily absorbable.
The proof, however, is in the pudding. I have seen so many people, literally in the hundreds, who have told me how they have benefited personally from supplementing. I have seen people's lives changed dramatically as a result of supplementation. I have seen people with advanced cases of multiple sclerosis, confined to a wheelchair, get up and walk. I have seen people riddled with arthritis and convinced that there is nothing that medicine can do for them have free and flexible movement without any pain. Cancer patients who were once practically given up for dead are still alive 20 or 30 years later and their quality of life has improved dramatically as a result of supplementing their diets. Most commonly though, I see people who have a new lease on life, they feel better and have more energy and libido.
Dr Peter Dingle is a researcher, educator and public health advocate. He has a PhD in the field of environmental toxicology and is not a medical doctor.