Health and wellness contributor and holistic health counselor April Reigart shares her expertise to help us figure out a big nutritional question: to supplement or not to supplement?
Do you ever feel confused about which supplements you should be taking? Wonder if a multivitamin is enough? Or should you add fish oil, probiotics, extra Vitamin D, B Vitamins, CoQ10, DIM, DHEA, Iron, MSM, Chondroitin, Magnesium…?! Dizzying, right? Perhaps you wonder why or if you even need to take a supplement, anyhow.
The supplement industry is a multi-billion dollar industry, and it’s fueled by people who are concerned about their health, weight and nutrition. Experts tell us that—even with the most ideal diet—our food is not what it used to be. The fruit and vegetable cultivars we buy from the grocery store do not contain the level of vitamins, minerals and polyphenols that their ancestors did hundreds of years ago.
Farmers have been cultivating produce to be sweeter and more desirable, but along the way, nutrition has been lost. Not to mention, soil quality is so depleted, comparatively, that our produce has been shown to not have the same level of minerals it once did. Further still, when we buy our produce from store shelves (as opposed to from a local farmer), it has been a long time from the vine, and the longer a fruit or vegetable sits, the more nutrients are lost.
So, what’s the answer? Nutrition shakes? Supplements? Hold on—not so fast.
Our food may not be what it used to be, but I think the bigger problem is that our overall diets and eating habits are not what they used to be. Lettuce may not have the level of fiber and minerals that it did 500 years ago, but the bigger problem is a diet in which very little lettuce is eaten, and too many processed foods are eaten in its place.
Nutritious foods have been displaced by processed convenience foods, which are largely devoid of nutrition. But—what to do if supplements, for whatever reason, are not for you?
If you are going to take supplements, it is best to take supplements made from whole foods, and not isolated chemical compounds; and it is important to take the right chemical form of each nutrient, or the vitamin is basically useless. For example, when looking for a vitamin D supplement, you would want to make sure you are taking D3 (cholecalciferol)—not D2 (ergocalciferol). Vitamin D3 is almost 90% more effective, according to research, in raising your D-serum levels, while D2 is reported to be largely unusable by your body. The D3 form is what our bodies naturally produce, and taking a synthetic version is not all that helpful.
This is the case for all the supplements. Why do they bother selling synthetic vitamin forms that are not able to be properly utilized by our bodies anyhow? You know the answer to that.
So, let’s say the idea of buying and taking supplements is just too much to swallow, for whatever myriad of reasons, and you would like to be able to rely on your diet to get all the vital, optimal nutrients that your body needs. Well, the bad news is that that isn’t likely on the Standard American Diet. There is nothing optimal for your health on a diet of fast food, soda and chips. The good news is that if you eat a whole food diet, and include all these power foods that I am about to explain—you might not need to supplement, or could potentially reduce your supplemental needs!
Here it is. If you eat whole, real, unprocessed and preferably organic foods, and focus on making your diet vegetable-centric, you are on your way to optimal nutrition. Below, I am going to list and explain some foods that are inherently nutritional superheroes. Most of us need to make these specific foods staples in our diets, as we can potentially get all the nutrition we need from them.
Ferments: The first thing we need to remember is that the seat of our immunity, and thus our overall well-being, lies within our gut; therefore we must safeguard and fortify our digestive systems. One of the most crucial ways to do this is by including fermented foods in our diet every day. (Note: some people cannot eat fermented foods due to histamine intolerance).
If you are a yogurt junkie—that’s fine, but I think there are even better ways to ingest your probiotics. The slight caveat to yogurt is that it involves sugar. Even if you don’t add a sweetener to your yogurt, there are the milk sugars. Sugar is counterproductive to gut health. (Not to deter you from yogurt—yogurt is great, as is kefir!)
A powerful way to include probiotics in your everyday is to keep a supply of fermented vegetables in your refrigerator! They are quite easy to make, and also pretty easy to find in natural food stores. Fermented green beans with garlic and dill, fermented carrots with ginger, fermented cabbage with caraway seeds, kimchi, fermented beets and red cabbage, fermented peppers… Keep jars of these in your refrigerator indefinitely, and add them generously to your meals—serve them with sausage or tempeh, mixed in to a rice bowl, on top of salads, on top of your morning eggs or eat them by themselves. A bowl of fermented veggies mixed with some chopped avocado, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds—that is a great quick lunch (or even breakfast, if you’re daring).
You can drink your probiotics in the form of kvass, kombucha, water or coconut kefir and regular kefir. All are easy to make at home, but you can also buy them.
Probiotics can help to heal a leaky gut, improve digestion, support and protect the immune system, increase vitamin absorption, fight bad bacteria, help with weight management and even help us produce vitamins B12 and K2, as well as important enzymes. For overall good health—it is recommended you consume probiotics daily.
Also of note—research has shown that getting your probiotics from these foods is actually far more effective than taking a probiotic supplement. While an excellent probiotic supplement may contain 10 to 15 different bacterial strains, these probiotic rich foods contain hundreds of varying probiotic strains—some are completely unknown. Each probiotic strain benefits us in different ways, so you can imagine how these whole foods containing a superior probiotic profile could potentially be more beneficial than isolating just a few and taking them as a supplement.
Sprouts: Sprouts contain more enzymes than raw fruits and vegetables. Enzymes are the proteins our bodies use as catalysts to carry out all of our bodily functions, especially helping us to extract more vitamins, minerals and amino acids from the foods we eat.
When a seed, nut or grain is sprouted, the fiber and nutritional content is increased. The proteins actually change in a way that makes them potentially more nutritious and more digestible. The vitamin content of some seeds, nuts, grains and beans increases, according to research, up to 20 times after sprouting. Sprouts themselves are incredibly high in B vitamins and essential fatty acids—all essential to optimum health.
Another benefit to eating sprouts—or sprouted nuts, seeds, grains and beans—is that they are alkalizing. It is widely believed that a major contributor to disease and inflammation is too much acidity in the body. Eating foods that are alkalizing helps to regulate the pH in your body and create balance.
To be clear, there are sprouts—the little green squiggly shoots that grow from seeds—and there are sprouted nuts, beans, grains and seeds. And you should eat them all. Raw sprouts are great to add to your salads, sandwiches, and anything else you can top off with the little green goodies. They’re also easy to grow right on your counter, all year long.
Sprouted nuts, beans and grains are also much more nutritious for you than their untreated counterparts, as the anti-nutrients have been removed, so everything is more digestible. You can buy already sprouted nuts, grains and beans, or you can sprout and dry them at home. At the very least, you can soak your beans, grains and nuts overnight before cooking or roasting them. This also helps to activate the vital nutrition, making them better for your digestion.
Mushrooms: Mushrooms are, in fact, magical. If you don’t like mushrooms—I know so many people who don’t—there are always capsules and tinctures. (Note: Some people are alleric to mushrooms, as well. Also, mushrooms are to be avoided if you have a problem with candida overgrowth. Never eat mushrooms you’ve found in the wild unless you have been instructed by an expert.)
Mushrooms are high in vitamin D, selenium, B vitamins (helpful for brain function, stress management, thyroid and metabolism support) and copper. They are also known to activate the type of immune cells referred to as killer cells because of their reputation for killing cancer cells, and they can inhibit tumor growth, as well as protect healthy cells and improve the body’s ability to detoxify itself.
Studies have shown that mushrooms contain complex compounds that have antimicrobial, antiviral, antitumor, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. Just like the sprouts, mushrooms are great at alkalizing the body. Experts are always telling us that disease cannot thrive in an alkaline body. Some mushrooms—like reishi, cordyceps and chaga—even act as adaptogens, which can help our bodies manage stress and can help to prevent or repair adrenal fatigue.
Berries: Berries contain extraordinarily high levels of phytochemicals and antioxidants, which help to protect our cells from free-radical damage. They are high in fiber, and can help to regulate our cholesterol levels, offering heart protective benefits. They are also low-sugar fruits (unlike fruits such as mangoes, bananas and pineapple), and blueberries have even been shown to have powerful affects on insulin sensitivity, making them potentially great at combating diabetes and lowering blood sugar levels. Berries are even believed to be helpful in preserving bone density, and protecting our brains from mental decline.
Anti-cancer, anti-diabetic, anti-aging, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-oxidant properties—we should all eat berries daily. Adding frozen berries to your smoothies is a great option, as the berries were frozen just after being harvested, helping to preserve some of their nutrition (as opposed to sitting on a store shelf).
You don’t have to seek out exotic (read: expensive) “superfruits” like acai and goji berries, either! All berries are high in phytonutrients, antioxidants, important vitamins, compounds and minerals. Good old blueberries have been rated as one of the world’s highest antioxidant foods.
High Quality Protein: It doesn’t matter whether you are vegan, paleo or whatever. What matters is that you are getting high-quality, clean protein. Protein is important in order to build and repair all of the tissues of our bodies, and we need it in order to produce important enzymes and hormones. Protein and collagen are essential to skin, bone and joint health and strength. Protein is even important to our immune capabilities. We need protein to maintain metabolism and blood sugar, as well as our energy levels.
High-quality proteins—as opposed to factory farmed meats and chemically sprayed, genetically engineered soy—provide more trace minerals and vitamins, healthy fatty acids, and contain far less pollutants, heavy metals and synthetic hormones and antibiotics, which can be damaging to our health. If you eat meat, eggs, fish and dairy—look for grass fed, organic, pastured, humanely raised and wild-caught. The factory farmed animal industry is unhealthy for everyone and everything involved. If you rely on soy products—look for GMO-free, and preferably organic. Fermented or sprouted soy products are far better for digestion, therefore, overall health.
So, there you have it. Include fermented foods, sprouts, mushrooms, berries and high-quality, clean proteins in to your diet every day, or at least several times a week, and your supplemental needs could be greatly diminished!
Air Do Shlàinte!
April Dawn Reigart is an Integrative Nutrition Certified Holistic Health Coach with over 20 years of holistic and macrobiotic cooking experience. She has also published articles on topics such as Fair Trade and GMOs. April is passionate about changing the way we eat and empowering people to take charge of their health.