Sunday, December 12, 2010

Supplements versus whole foods

I was at a friend’s house several years ago, we had just finished eating burritos form the local taqueria, and I was watching him take his daily regime of vitamins. As he was swallowing them, he asked me if taking vitamins was a decent replacement for eating veggies. Why eat vegetables if one can simply take the nutrients they offer in a capsule or pill form? At the time, I was stumped. On a gut level I felt that vegetables must have an advantage over supplements, yet I was still a student at the time and didn’t have an answer. Now that many years have passed, I have compiled plenty of reasons why one should go for the veggies over the supps. Here are a couple of important things one could miss out on…


Fiber plays a crucial role in health due to its ability to lower blood cholesterol levels and stabilize blood sugar levels. It also aids in the prevention of colon cancer, constipation and obesity.

Soluble fiber forms a gel within the gut allowing for delayed stomach emptying. This is beneficial as it results in the sensation of fullness and decreased appetite. Delayed stomach emptying also slows the absorption of carbohydrates, reducing after meal blood sugar spikes and stabilizing blood sugar levels. Soluble fiber also lowers cholesterol. Fiber binds with cholesterol-containing bile acids. Fiber isn't absorbed and exits the body with the bile acids, dramatically lowering cholesterol.

Insoluble fiber also plays an important role as it not only prevents constipation, but also aids in the prevention of colon cancer, diverticulosis, and irritable bowel syndrome.

The average American consumes less than 15 grams of fiber a day. The ideal consumption of fiber is at least 25 grams a day. Consider this interesting tidbit: Our Paleolithic ancestors consumed an average of 100-150 grams of fiber a day!


Phytochemicals is a term used to describe a wide variety of compounds produced by plants. They are found in fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, and other plants.

Many thousands of phytochemicals have been identified (there are 10,000 different kinds in tomatoes alone), however, only a few have been studied closely. We have yet to identify the full range of benefits we obtain form them, but it is known that some phytochemicals have antioxidant actions while others have hormone-like actions. Here is an excerpt and link for the USDA’s National Agricultural library website describing phytochemicals:

“Known phytochemicals have a broad range of protective benefits -- from reducing inflammation, to speeding healing, to preventing infection, to curbing cancer. Phytochemicals are not essential to humans -- i.e. not required by the body to sustain life -- but they are essential to plants, such as fruit and vegetables. Phytochemicals are plants' self-protection program: they help shield young buds and sprouts from predators, pollution, the elements, etc. When we eat fruit and vegetables containing phytochemicals, they pass along to us many of these evolved protective benefits.

Some phytochemicals are plant pigments, lending their vivid hues -- red, orange, blue, purple -- to various fruit and vegetables. Many phytochemicals are antioxidants with lycopene, quercetin and beta-carotene being some of the better-known examples. Phytochemicals also include plant enzymes (such as pineapple's bromelain), phytoestrogens - which mimic human hormones (such as soy isoflavones) and glucosinolates which activate our own detoxifying enzymes (such as sulforaphane in cabbage).”

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that supplements don’t have their place—what I am saying is look to whole foods first. You don’t want to miss out on the additional benefits found in whole foods :).

Nancy Silva, ND
Faculty, Kaplan School of Health Sciences


Shelley Dryden said...

Although it's important to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, isn't the soil in the U.S. seriously depleted of nutrients? This means that compared to the early 1900s, present-day produce is much less nutrient dense. This was documented as far back as possibly the 1930s with a congressional study. Would organic produce have more nutrients? You can also get whole food juicing powders that, if farmed properly, can compensate for the lack of nutrients in current produce; I know, I sell a barley grass powder that is nutrient-dense!

Kaplan Center for Health and Wellness said...

Hi Shelley,

You raise a great point :). I recall hearing this information about our soils ( and consequently our vegetables) having less nutrients than they had in the past in a nutrition class years ago--but I do not have a reference handy. Does anyone have a reputable link they would like to share on this topic? As far as organic produce--yes, I have read studies showing that organic produce often contains higher concentrations of anti-oxidants. Overall, I can say that one could make a great argument for daily supplementation. We modern humans not only ingest less nutrients than our ancestors--but in addition, we are consistently using more nutrients to fend off the multitude of free radicals we ingest via pollution, chemicals, etc. My take on it is that we need to look to our diet and lifestyle first. Many of us could make great improvements there before reaching for supplements :).

Thanks for sharing your thoughts! :)


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