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Nutritional Supplements: Friends or Foes?

Did you know that only 13% of Americans get enough fruits each day? How about that only 8% of us get enough vegetables on a daily basis?! This is scary to me. If we’re not eating at least 1.5-2 cups of fruits and 2-3 cups of vegetables daily, then what are we eating? Usually highly processed (i.e., it doesn’t look like it grew somewhere) foods that are high in calories and low in nutrients. There are four main reasons for our now predisposed eating habits: processed foods are convenient/fast, well marketed, perceived to be cheaper, and engineered to taste good. Ever wonder if a chip company researches the optimal ‘crunch factor’ for their chips? Absolutely they do.

When I was a kid, I remember 2 things about going to the grocery store. The first is that my brother and I had a tendency to misbehave (Me?! Never!), so my mom would get us a small bag of donut holes IF we behaved to her appropriately high standards in the store. And, second, that I spent most of the store trip picking out a breakfast cereal. It was not the taste, quality, etc. of the cereal, though, that was the determining factor for me but rather what toy was inside! This food marketing to me at an early age even led me to spend my hard-earned moolah on a box of Cookie Crisp one time on vacation because I didn’t think I could go 3-4 days without it! And I never spent my money! It’s little, influential, habits like this that add up over time to replace the good stuff in our daily food intake.

The way the food industry is set up, it’s very challenging, even if there’s an awareness, to achieve daily appropriate food intake goals. So what are we to do if we want to hit that nutrient goal for the day? We need to cut out (or drastically reduce) processed foods as well as possibly supplement. I think there’s a place for supplements in our daily routine, because, like I said, the vast majority of us don’t get what we need nutritionally. Where do we start, though? If you just look up supplements on Google, you’ll be inundated with search results and ads. The supplement industry is a multi-BILLION dollar industry and growing quickly. Be aware that, just like the processed food industry, there’s a significant arm of the supplement industry that is out there simply to make money, independent of your overall health.

Appropriate supplementation is different for every individual, and folks should talk to a healthcare provider about recommendations. It’s not enough to simply trust what’s on the label! Why do we want to supplement anyway and why is it such a growing industry? Because it is in our human nature to want a quick fix. Most of us would rather take a pill that claims it lower heart disease risk than exercise. Most of us would rather take a pill that claims to increase our energy than go to bed an hour earlier. We’re just wired that way.

There are good reasons for appropriate supplementation though – they include poor food quality, poor food choices, lack of exercise, stress, not enough sleep, drinking too much alcohol, hormone imbalances and even genetics. If I had to pick 3 supplements that most everyone could benefit from and have good science behind them, I’d say probiotics, omega-3’s and vitamin D.

Any of these can be found over the counter or online. We’ll talk about these individually in a later column but here’s some tidbits to get you started:

Probiotics are what I call good bacteria. They are very important for your immune system, digestive system, vitamin production and detoxification. Did you know 60% of your immune system resides in your gut?! That’s part of why it’s important to keep your gut healthy. Not to mention probiotics usually make bowel movements more regular and lower risk for urinary tract infections.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids are endorsed by the American Heart Association for heart disease prevention. They are beneficial in a range of disorders mainly due to anti-inflammatory effects and cellular membrane fluidity. They tend to lower triglycerides. I tell my lady-patients that omega-3’s help their skin and hair look healthier! I can usually spot who takes omega-3’s just by looking at their skin.

Vitamin D is low in just about everyone. My vitamin D is low. I take a vitamin D supplement. When it’s in a good range, it really helps lower risk for heart disease and cancer. It also helps regulate insulin and blood sugar levels which is key to long term health.

So, do we need to supplement our daily food intake? In most cases, probably so. As much as I’d love for Cookie Crisp to grow on trees and have good nutritional value, it just doesn’t stack up to what good-ole Mother Nature can whip up!

Dr. Thomas is a board-certified physician who operates Complete Health Integrative Wellness Clinic and Thomas Urology Clinic in Starkville, Mississippi.

This blog post is for informational purposes only and is, under no circumstances, intended to constitute medical advice or to create or continue a physician-patient relationship. If you have a medical emergency, you should immediately seek care from your nearest emergency room, and if you have specific health questions, you should consult your own physician.

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