What Keeps Me from Ditching My Vitamins
Ideally, our foods should contain all the nutrients humans need to thrive; however, there are so many factors that impact nutrient availability from foods.
How to find nutrient-packed foods
Organic, seasonal, local fresh food is more likely to contain higher nutrient content than foods produced by commercial agricultural practices. This includes not only plant-based foods, but animal-based foods as well.
Eating a broad, varied diet of colorful foods will help you get a variety of nutrients every day.
Properly prepared foods, such as sprouted and fermented grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes, will provide more nutrients than their improperly prepared counterparts. This is because food chemicals such as phytic acid and lectins are destroyed, releasing the vitamins and minerals they were bound to.
Phytonutrients are additionally found in foods and not the typical supplement bottle. Phytonutrients are bonus nutrients that support health. These include substances such as beta-carotene, resveratrol, tannins, and lycopene, to name just a few. Some phytonutrients even work synergistically, giving you a greater bang for your buck when you consume them together. And, amazingly, scientists haven’t even discovered all of the phytonutrient compounds, so getting nutrients from foods will add these mystery substances to your diet.
Does eating well mean we’re getting all the necessary nutrients?
While it’s ideal to obtain all nutrients from foods, the reality is that this may not be possible for everyone. In actuality, even if we are eating a varied and broad diet, we are not consuming the same food nutrient profiles that existed 100 years ago. Humans’ nutrient needs have not decreased over time. But the nutrients in our foods have.
So what’s driving nutrient depletion in our food?
Soil is nutrient-depleted due to poor agricultural practices. Crops are fertilized using a specific formula that promotes plant growth and yield. As plants uptake their necessary nutrients, which includes those that may not be in the fertilizer, they are gone unless replenished. Over years, this takes a toll on soil health.
Animals consuming plant foods (including grains such as corn) that are grown in depleted soils become nutrient-deficient as a result, and so when we consume their meat, eggs, or milk, we are also consuming depleted foods. It’s not just about the crops.
The longer fruits and vegetables are permitted to ripen on the vine, the more complex their nutrient (and phytonutrients) profile will be. However, crops are being harvested prematurely to withstand shipment. And the transit times further degrade nutrients, which are most prevalent at time of harvest.
Farmers are business people. They are breeding crops for size and taste, not nutrients, since this is what sells. For instance, Brussels sprouts are being bred to be less bitter, although the bitterness signals a powerful, health-promoting phytochemical. Tomatoes are being bred not for their gorgeous red color, which would indicate the powerful antioxidant lycopene, but to withstand long transport to get to the consumer. Is this really in our best interest, health-wise?
As a culture, we love fast. As a result, we no longer properly prepare our foods in traditional manners, since this takes time. Typically grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds have nutrients bound to phytochemicals such as phytic acid, which blocks their absorption. The bread you buy at the store or with your sandwich at the deli, the beans you eat next to your fajitas, the rice you eat at the Chinese restaurant. Most likely none of these foods were traditionally prepared and so you’re not getting their full benefits; the nutrients are just not available to your body.
Some pharmaceuticals can block nutrient absorption, too. Check the package insert of any medications to see if they interfere with any nutrients.
Lastly, dietary pattern matters. For an individual consuming a limited diet or following the standard American diet, nutrient intake may fall short.
What can I do?
Be picky about the sources of your foods. Organic farming practices, including using compost and nutrient-producing soil microbes, ensure that at least a greater quantity of nutrients will be replenished in the soil, and therefore, in our food. Eat local and seasonal, too, as often as possible. Ask questions. Go to the farmer’s market if you’re able to do so. Find out about your local farmers’ soil rebuilding and fertilization practices, and what laying chickens, milking cows, and food animals are fed. (Chickens are not supposed to be vegetarian, and cows are not supposed to eat grains. Pastured is best.)
Ideally, nutrients should come from foods. But in this day and age, supplements might be considered a necessity. This doesn’t mean go overboard with them, either, though.
Seriously consider supplementation if:
- you eat more of a standard American diet
- know you have a nutrient deficiency
- are taking pharmaceuticals that can cause nutrient depletion or malabsorption
- are experiencing a health issue that has a nutritional basis (note: this applies to a huge range of health conditions, even if your doctor hasn’t told you so), or
- are pregnant or nursing.
How to choose a supplement will be covered in a later post!