Sunday September 16, 2012
Do I need supplements?
By DR NOR ASHIKIN MOKHTAR
Dietary supplements may not be for everyone, but they could have a role to play in your life.
THE title of this article poses one of the most frequently-asked questions by people today.
As we become more concerned about our nutritional well-being, we are understandably worried about whether we are getting proper nourishment from the food that we eat.
Not only do our busy and stressful lifestyles prevent us from eating well, but even the food in our markets and supermarket shelves may no longer be the healthiest sources of nutrients.
Due to these reasons, it is no wonder that I hear the question “Do I need supplements?” so often. Dietary supplements may not be for everyone, but they could have a role to play in your life, depending on the quality of food that you eat every day.
Here are a few reasons that supplements may be necessary for you.
Quality of soil and crops
The idea of dietary supplements is to make up for nutrient deficiencies in our diet – often deficiencies of micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals, instead of macronutrients, which are quite abundant in our food.
Vitamins and minerals cannot be made in our body, therefore we have to obtain them from the food that we eat.
Plant foods, such as vegetables, fruits, legumes and grains, are one of the main sources of minerals, as plants absorb minerals from the soil that they are grown in.
But did you know that even if you eat plenty of plant foods, you may not be getting as much minerals as you think you should?
This is because our soil is becoming increasingly depleted of minerals, due to the land being used repeatedly for agriculture. When plants are grown over and over again in the same soil, the mineral content of the soil decreases over time – much like a well that becomes empty after you keep drinking the water from it.
As a result, most agricultural soils today are low in zinc, manganese, chromium, molybdenum, calcium and magnesium. Research shows that this can lead to up to a 75% decrease in the trace minerals in plant foods.
To make matters worse, the intensive form of farming taking place today has further reduced the level of nutrients in crops. High yield crops contain less nutrients because the crops are competing for nutrients from a finite amount of soil.
For instance, wheat farmers today plant 10 times the amount of wheat on the same land, compared to the amount grown 100 years ago. As a result, today’s wheat consists of only 6% protein, half of the 12-14% level from a century ago.
You can counteract this problem by eating organic fruits and vegetables as much as possible. Organic farmers practise “crop rotation” to reduce the likelihood of soil depletion, although this does not completely prevent soil depletion.
Modern fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides
Before modern fertilisers came into the picture, farmers would use manure to encourage crops to grow better. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case as manure has been replaced by superphosphate fertilisers, which contain mainly nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus.
Modern fertilisers are used for the purpose of stimulating crops to grow, but as they do not contain trace minerals that are vital for health, they do not serve to enrich the crops.
The use of pesticides and herbicides further deteriorates the soil content, as they kill the microorganisms living in the soil that make minerals and other nutrients available to plants.
As we ingest traces of these pesticides when we eat plant foods, our bodies need more nutrients to remove these toxins. This places a heavy toll on the body, which is already deprived of micronutrients.
Food transportation and processing
When was the last time you ate fresh produce, harvested just hours or days before it reached your dining table? Chances are, it was so long ago that you don’t remember anymore.
As much of our produce today is imported, the food often takes days or weeks from the time it is harvested until it reaches our supermarkets or markets.
Many vitamins are unstable and are easily destroyed when exposed to environmental factors like heat and light. Therefore, by the time the food is handled, packaged, transported by airplane, train or truck and unpacked on our shelves, it has lost a lot of its nutritional value.
Similarly, food processing causes a lot of nutrients to be lost, particularly minerals.
We consume a lot of refined, processed, canned and frozen food today for convenience and economic reasons, but they are far less nutritious than fresh and natural food.
The process of refining wheat to make white flour removes 80% of magnesium, 70-80% of zinc, 87% of chromium, 88% of manganese and 50% of cobalt.
Making polished rice causes 75% of zinc and chromium to be lost, while making white sugar from sugar cane causes 99% of magnesium and 93% of chromium to be lost.
The use of food additives, such as artificial flavours, colours, conditioners, stabilisers and preservatives, can also deplete the body of nutrients.
One of the biggest reasons that many of us do not meet our daily nutrient requirements – in the right proportion – is that we lead very unhealthy lifestyles.
We often skip meals and then binge on one heavy meal to make up for it, or make poor food choices that do not provide the variety of nutrients we need.
If you get through the day on coffee, soft drinks, instant noodles, doughnuts and chocolates, you are certainly deprived of a lot of important nutrients.
High stress levels will also deplete nutrients, including calcium, magnesium and zinc. Stress also overstimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which causes poor digestion and weak absorption of nutrients.
Finally, as we age, it is inevitable that our bodies will produce fewer enzymes that are needed to properly digest the food that we eat. That is why older people tend to be vulnerable to nutrient deficiencies.
Supplementing a healthy diet
“Supplements” came by their name because they were meant to complement or enhance the daily diet, not replace it. Fundamentally, you still need to eat a healthy, balanced diet consisting of a variety of foods.
However, supplements will come in useful if the fruits, vegetables and plant foods that you eat are of poor quality (due to depleted soil, as explained above) and cannot provide an optimum amount of nutrients.
You may also need supplements if you are going through a particularly stressful period and your body needs a helping hand to meet its nutrient requirements and balance the hormone levels.
If you are pregnant, lactating, elderly, vegetarian or have a chronic illness, you are likely to have special nutritional needs which may not be met by your diet alone.
However, you cannot rely on supplements forever. They are useful to help you get through a tough period and bring your body back to balance, but you have to be able to maintain good nutritional health through natural means.
Get advice from a dietitian or pharmacist before purchasing dietary supplements, so that you do not overdose on nutrients or consume poor quality – or even toxic – products.
Once you know what it feels like to get all the nutrients you need, you will start to pay more attention to your diet and lifestyles.
■ Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar is a consultant obstetrician & gynaecologist (FRCOG, UK). For further information, visit www.primanora.com. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.