Skeptics and detractors of vitamins and nutritional supplements often argue that you don’t need to take a vitamin if you have a well-balanced diet. But is it really possible to get everything that you need easily and consistently from even the best of food plans? Unfortunately, for many reasons, it is much more complicated and challenging than it may seem to do so and there are many pitfalls in the pursuit of an optimal diet.
For starters, even if it were possible to do so (and it’s probably not), who has a well-balanced diet? It’s not an easy thing to do. And most people don’t.
We asked our scientific advisor, Dr. Egler on the low down on exactly what it takes to reach perfect nutrition and why it's so hard for us to get there.
“We’re living in a time when more than 80% of Americans fail to eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables. At the same time, many Americans overeat refined grains and sugar. Despite this and plenty of similar evidence, about 75% of respondents”, in a survey of 3000 US adults, “ranked their diets as good, very good or excellent.”1
This is very consistent with what my patients tell me every day. But, as a student of nutrition and a witness to the plethora of medical problems they have, most of which are at least in some way related to their diets, I have to disagree with them.
“The most recent edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults consume 1.5 to two cups of fruit per day, and two to three cups of vegetables per day. According to the CDC’s data, however, just 12.2% of American adults are meeting the standard for fruit, and 9.3% are meeting the standard for vegetables. On average, the report adds, Americans are eating fruit once per day and vegetables 1.7 times per day.”2 As if that is not concerning enough, it’s important to put this into perspective and keep in mind that most of these current dietary recommendations and even the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) are based on levels to prevent basic diseases rather than promote wellness or optimal health.
As a society, we’re falling very short of optimal or even healthy diets. So I speak to my patients every day about the difference between “sufficient” and “optimal”. If you are seeking optimal health, sufficient or “adequate” won’t do. You need a food plan that will provide plentitude of nutrients, not just enough. But sadly we are mostly operating in the insufficient realm.
Beyond simply not eating enough of the right foods, consider the additional challenge that our food supply these days simply may not have the nutritional value compared to what it used to.3 “Several studies of fruits, vegetables, and grains have suggested a decline in nutritional value over time, but the reasons may not be as simple as soil depletion. There is considerable evidence that such problems may be related to changes in cultivated varieties, with some high-yielding plants being less nutritious historical varieties. Several other issues are involved, like changes in farming methods, including the extensive use of chemical fertilizers, as well as food processing and preparation.” 4
To get a grasp of the scale and severity of this problem, consider that most of our food these days is processed and so somewhat artificial or depleted rather than organic and whole. In a study of over 9000 persons, “researchers found that 57.9 percent of people’s calorie intake, on average, came from ultra-processed foods.”5 The extensive refining and processing of food for industrial and commercial purposes commonly further strips away the potential nutrients still available in our already potentially depleted whole foods.
So the odds may be stacked and further stacking against us as we try to achieve that “well-balanced diet”.
Next, we have to consider that, even if we were able to consistently deliver an adequately diverse set of nutrients, including the appropriate amounts and diversity of amino and fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, etc. on a regular and reliable basis, would we be able to adequately assimilate these nutrients? The effectiveness of digestion and absorption varies tremendously from individual to individual and even between individuals depending upon the relative health of their gut at different points in time. One’s ability to absorb from their diet all the nutrients that are available to them is dependent upon such varied factors as their unique genetic code; epigenetic factors (how one’s environment activates or deactivates specific genetic factors); the state of an individual’s microbiome (the bacteria found within one’s gut which can be both helpful and harmful if out of balance); medical conditions and medications, particularly those that predispose persons to leaky gut syndrome (i.e. gut permeability), etc., etc. Each of these factors is complex and a whole discussion unto itself. But the point is that even with the best of diets, one still might not be able to get what they need due to the relative health of their digestive system and its ability to accommodate and take in those nutrients.
And then, last but not least, is perhaps the most prevalent and significant pitfall to overcome. It’s our behavior, our psychology. The vast majority of people simply don’t choose to eat healthily. As we’ve seen, they even tell themselves (and others) that they do. But while there is considerable debate about which is the best diet, eating healthy in general is not rocket science. We know, for instance, that we need to avoid fast food, processed foods, and sugar. We should moderate our caffeine and alcohol intake. We should eat more fruit and even more vegetables. Yet, speaking generally, as a society, we don’t. We don’t because of our habits, because of our patterns and because of our misbeliefs. We don’t because of our cultural norms, healthy or not. Maybe we think healthy food won’t taste good or we’ve convinced ourselves that eating healthy is hard. We tell ourselves that we want to eat healthier and even that we will…..someday. But we don’t.
So, yes, it might be possible to eat a well-balanced diet and to get all the nutrients that we need from our diets. But the odds, the cravings, the science and the psychology are stacked against us. So for those that are dedicated to consistently eating a diverse and whole food diet varied and plentiful enough to provide the vast spectrum of nutrients in the quantities necessary to assimilate it all day in and day out, that is almost certainly the best way to go. And for the rest of us, vitamins and nutritional supplements can be an important and effective means to avoid and overcome the pitfalls that stand between us and optimal nutrition.