Nutritional supplements

Nutritional supplements vs organic food?

By nutritionist Shane Heaton

Shane Heaton

Can you get all the nutrients you need from a well balanced organic diet?

I get asked this a lot, so here’s my answer: Controversial maybe, but if you’re pursuing optimum health, and you probably are if you’re reading this, then I suggest you eat a diet rich in organic food AND take nutritional supplements.

There’s no doubt that eating predominantly organic food brings considerable benefits and reduced risks to your health. More vitamins and minerals, fewer pesticide residues, less antibiotic-resistant bugs, fewer food additives, lower nitrates, less processing, more antioxidants, and less environmental degradation are just some of the benefits.

So if you’re getting all this from an organic diet, why take health supplements?

We’re exposed to more toxins and stresses than ever before.  Quite simply, our physical and psychological environments have changed more rapidly than we can adapt to them. Modern man has invented ten million new chemicals, thousands of which are added to our food, are found in our homes via household products, are in the water we drink and the air we breathe. Dr Vyvyan Howard, toxicologist from the University of Liverpool finds we each have some 500 toxins in our systems that our grandparents didn’t have, simply because they didn’t exist 50 years ago. While organic food provides a simple and enjoyable way to minimise your exposure to pollutants, you can’t avoid them all, and if you tried, the stress would harm you more than the toxins!

Were we cannibals, our own meat would be unfit for human consumption” Dr Paula Baillie-Hamilton, author of the Detox Diet.
Advances in travel and communication haveTraffic time lapse so condensed the world that our brains and bodies, evolved over millions of years, are struggling to keep up. Global news reaches us instantly. We can fly anywhere in a day. And we have instant access to more information than ever before. While some of us are rising to the challenge, many are struggling to keep up, living with tiredness, anxiety, stress and depression.  

These additional burdens mean we need more nutrients than ever before if we are to thrive, rather than just survive, in the 21st century.  Which brings us to the second key argument in favour of supplementation…

For optimum health, we need more than the RDIs
Official National Food Surveys show that many people fail to get the Recommended Daily Intakes (RDI’s) for a variety of nutrients.  And RDI’s aren’t enough for optimum health anyway, according to research by Emmanual Cheraskin and colleagues at the University of Alabama who found, in a 15 year study of 13500 people, that the nutrient intakes of the most healthy individuals are often 5-10 times the RDI!

We may be living longer, but other measures of our health like cancer incidence, infertility, mental health, low energy levels, depression, and allergies, all of which are worsening, suggest our health is not as good as it could and should be.

The myth of the ‘well balanced diet’
When I began studying nutrition I held the strongShe likes her greens - a well balanced salad... belief that “you could get all you need from a well balanced diet”. Unfortunately, in the modern world, I now know this simply isn’t true. Organic food and farming are essential parts of the solution, but nutritional science is showing that today we need more nutrients than we can get from diet alone to maximise our health and make it last.  Remarkably, the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine have both recently run articles stating that the best strategy is to eat right and take a multivitamin/mineral supplement, representing a huge shift in orthodox medical thinking.

Remember though, supplementation is no magic bullet either. To achieve optimum health we need to eat as well as we can, and eliminate (or at least minimise) all activities that bring toxins into our bodies - smoking and stressful situations being prime culprits.  Equally important is to remain physically active, chew well, and live an emotionally fulfilling life - happiness is a key ingredient on any wellness scale.

None of this means that organic food is a waste of time or money. Remember:

  • Part of the reason we need more nutrients than ever before is that we are exposed to more pollutants and toxins than ever before. Organic and natural foods reduce the amounts of toxins in your food and the environment.
  • Nutrients are higher in organic foods, to the degree that they can help you achieve the recommended daily allowance for various nutrients that you otherwise may fall short on. This still may not be enough for optimum health, but it’s a step in the right direction.
  • Not all of the compounds in plant foods have even been identified, let alone isolated and put in a supplement. Most nutrients work best in combination with one another, and no supplement can mimic the complexity of the chemical composition of foods.
  • Controlled feeding trials with animals have consistently shown better health in those animals fed organic diets, with better growth, fertility, and recovery from illness, even over successive generations.

The bottom lineOrganic Strawberries

Eating organic foods and supporting organic farming are important ways to help yourself to better health. There are also other important ways, and science is increasingly revealing that regular supplementation of additional nutrients is a good idea.

Which supplements?
Start with a high quality multivitamin / mineral supplement every day. (Ed: Metagenics Family Multivitamin and Mineral is a good example - please note this is provided for reference and not a recommendation of the author). If you know you’re stressed, consider taking additional vitamin C, and if you know you’re exposed to pollution, take a good antioxidant complex (Ed: Oxidant Protection is another good example - please note this is provided for reference and not a recommendation of the author). You may benefit from higher levels of other specific nutrients, though to identify them you should consult a nutritionist or naturopath who can assess your individual needs.

If supplements are not for you, I recommend avoiding stress and pollution as best you can while enjoying close relationships with family, friends and your community. Eat plenty of mineral rich foods including pumpkin seeds, brazil nuts, seaweeds, molasses and tropical fruits, and plenty of antioxidant-rich foods such as berries, turmeric, prunes, greens, broccoli, cabbage and a range of other brightly coloured fruits and vegetables.

Editors Note:

In the not too distant future we will publish artilces on the following topics:

  • Natural dietary supplements
  • Natural herbal supplements
  • Natural health supplements
  • Sports supplement

Selected references
Hattersley J, Thomas P & McTaggart L, 2002, “Vitamin supplements and why we need them”, What Doctors Don’t Tell You 13(9), p1-12.

Heaton SAA, 2001, "Organic Farming, Food Quality and Human Health: A review of the evidence", Soil Association, Bristol, UK, 88pp

Worthington V, 2001,”Nutritional Quality of Organic Versus Conventional Fruits, Vegetables, and Grains” J Alt Comp Med 7(2), p161-73

Fletcher RH & Fairfield KM, 2002, ‘Vitamins for Chronic Disease Prevention in Adults: Clinical Applications’, JAMA 287, p3127-3129

Oakley GP, 1998, ‘Eat right and take a multivitamin’, NEJM 338(15), p1060-1

Worthington V, 1998, “Effect of agricultural methods on nutritional quality: a comparison of organic with conventional crops’, Alternative Therapies Health Med 4(1), p 58–69