The Paleo NP Podcast Episode #12: Supplements vs. Whole Foods
Intro & something new I'm into
Whole foods vs. supplements, what's the difference?
Using whole foods as supplements
Best foods to use as supplements
Should you take probiotics with or without food?
A quick note about vitamin D
Theme music courtesy of soundotcom.com
You’re listening to the Paleo NP Podcast, episode #12
Welcome back to another episode of the Paleo NP Podcast! I’m excited to talk about today’s topic...do I say that every week? Because I feel like I say that every week. Anyway I’m excited to get into that, but first I’ve got something new that I’m into.
This week I’m into Four Sigmatic’s Reishi Mushroom powder. I’ve had and used some of their products on and off for awhile, but the Reishi isn’t something that I’ve used regularly, mostly because it’s just not something that I found a way to fit into my routine.
So Reishi is great for sleep - among other things. Which is why I’ve been drinking it at bedtime. The Four Sigmatic powder does have some stevia in it, which I actually don’t love, but it’s not a huge deal. So I’ve been mixing a packet of reishi, a little bit of cacao, and some Great Lakes gelatin into a mug with some hot water, so it’s kind of like reishi hot chocolate. I have been enjoying it before bed for several days now and I’ve been sleeping the sleep of the dead...which is amazing. I’ve got a blog post that I’ll link to that’s dives a little deeper into some of the benefits of some of the different mushroom powders that Four Sigmatic sells, and this is not at all sponsored, it’s just a product that I really love and feel like it does my body good.
I also love that Four Sigmatic has made mushrooms accessible to the average person, because not that long ago if you wanted them you had to really know your stuff and you’d end up getting a random bag of powder labelled in Chinese and the whole thing was really sketchy. So they’ve just really made the world of mushrooms super accessible to the average person which is great. And the company was founded by a Finn, so I love that too because I’m half Finnish, so of course I’m going to support my people.
Alright, moving on! This week I want to talk about supplements in the context of supplements vs. getting your nutrients from whole foods as well as touch a little bit on fortified foods and how those are different from actually getting the nutrients that are found in whole foods. Also, I want to make a disclaimer here that people are all very different and just because something works for me or I talk about a client or a patient who did something, does not mean that you should go out and do the same thing.
There is often so much more that goes into these decisions than just, I live in Alaska and therefore I need to supplement with vitamin D. So all of the things I’m sharing today are meant to inform you and help you make an informed decision along with your healthcare practitioner. And if you don’t have a healthcare practitioner who even wants to talk about supplements or whole food nutrition, send me an email...I’d love to talk to you about this!
Whole foods vs. synthetic supplements
I tend to take for granted the fact that I know that there’s a huge difference between the nutrients that you get from whole foods and the nutrients that are used to create most vitamins and supplements. But I realize that not everyone understands this difference. I can’t tell you how many times I hear people say “but I take my multi-vitamin” as an excuse for eating a nutrient-poor diet. It’s also really important to keep in mind that just as with packaged foods, supplements are a multi-billion dollar industry and while you might think that their goal is to help you get healthier, it’s actually to make money. Yes, there are companies out there who have a genuine interest in your health, but the ultimate goal of most companies within this industry is to make money. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but just remember that before you decide that you NEED something based on what it says on the outside of a bottle.
Let’s use a carrot as an example. A carrot has tons of nutrients in it. It’s probably best known for it’s beta-carotene content (which is a precursor to vitamin C). But it’s also got some vitamin C and about 200 other nutrients and phytochemicals (which are compounds found in plants that are necessary for our health). So these 200 nutrients work together in ways that we have yet to discover and don’t really understand. Science has identified around 5,000 phytochemicals, but there are far more that exist and it’s possible that we will never truly understand the power of plants.
Now if you look at the label of your standard multi-vitamin, we feel good about the fact that it lists 20 different vitamins in minerals at varying percentages of daily value and we feel like we are doing our bodies good. The problem with this is that first, the micronutrients that we get from supplements are not very well absorbed. Remember the 200 compounds in the carrot? All of those 200 compounds work together to help us get the best beta-carotene absorption we can, so when we just give our body beta-carotene, it can’t actually use it very well unless we’ve provided the other co-factors that are needed to absorb and utilize it. Also, many synthetic forms of vitamins can’t actually be used by our bodies because they don’t really recognize them.
Another good example of this idea is that eating tomatoes has more positive effects on prostate tissues than an equivalent amount of supplemented lycopene. And this is because of something called food synergy. All those other compounds that are present in the whole food do more good than we understand and interact in ways that we haven’t figured out yet.
Supplements tend to only contain the nutrients that have actually been identified as important but are missing the other bits and pieces that allow your body to put the whole puzzle together. Also, many of these nutrients need to be consumed in a specific combination with other nutrients in order to improve your health and some nutrients actually compete with each other, so taking them in the same pill means that you might not actually get any benefit from either. As a culture, we also tend to subscribe to the idea that if some is good, then more is better, so vitamins often get packed with huge doses of certain compounds. Taking supplements with high doses or taking isolated forms of vitamins and minerals has consequences. You might see some benefit, but over time it can actually stress your body and create further deficiencies.
The best example I can think of for this is any multi-vitamin that contains B vitamins. When you take them and your pee turns bright yellow, that means that your body is essentially filtering out the B vitamins and you are excreting them in your urine. I also have no proof or research to back this up (mostly because I haven’t looked for it, not because it doesn’t exist), but I would assume that because of this phenomenon combined with the knowledge that much of what is present in vitamins and supplements isn’t recognized by the body or can’t be used by the body, that most supplements place unnecessary stress on your liver. Because remember that you liver has to filter all of the toxins and other things that you excrete as waste out of your system.
Also, remember that your liver needs some very specific nutrients to keep working properly and efficiently, so making more work for it while not replacing the nutrients that it needs just makes the problem worse. Also, for the fat soluble vitamins (which B vitamins are), your body can’t really absorb them without fat, so they are present in nature in conjunction with fat, but when you take them in a pill, unless you are eating fat along with them, your body just can’t utilize them and that’s part of the reason why they just get excreted in your urine.
Whole Food Supplements
Now, this doesn’t mean that you need to throw away all your supplements and never touch them again, but it does mean that you need to learn how to read labels. And as always, you should absolutely aim to get all of your nutrition from real, whole foods. However, there are some cases where you just need more nutrition or need some super targeted supplementation. And this is when reading labels will help you find a good supplement.
If a nutrient is listed in the ingredients like a food, then that means that it’s a whole food source. Usually the nutrient that it represents is listed in parenthesis or vice versa with the nutrient listed and the whole food source in parenthesis. If there are just chemical names like thaimine or ascorbic acid, then that’s probably a synthetic source.
It’s also important to remember that more is not better and that most foods do not have over 100% of the RDA of any vitamins and minerals. Though there are exceptions to this - for example oysters have about 600% of your RDA for zinc and 320% of the RDA for vitamin B12. I think clams have over 1000% of your RDA of vitamin B12, but that isn’t the norm with most foods, and from what I could find in a quick search was actually pretty common with most seafood and organ meats, but not so much in any fruits or vegetables. So if you see any vitamin listed as more than 100% on the label, it’s likely from a synthetic source.
I also want to point out that getting over 100% of your RDA of most vitamins and minerals isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, it can become a bad thing if you are always getting that from a supplement and this goes back to the idea that there are tons of co-factors and phytochemicals in whole foods that help your body metabolize and utilize the vitamins and other nutrients present in the food, so it’s rare to get any sort of vitamin toxicity from whole food sources but it it pretty easy to have that happen from a supplement or pill form of a vitamin.
What about enriched foods?
I also want to touch on enriched foods too. Now, my very first problem with these foods is that most of them are foods that I personally choose not to eat and tend to recommend that others don’t eat either. These are things like bread, pasta, flour, corn products, juice, cereal, and milk. Most of these things are processed foods and relying on processed foods for your vitamins is probably a worse strategy than relying on a multivitamin.
Also, the substances that are used to enrich these foods are definitely synthetic. Because I highly doubt that anyone would buy milk that was fortified with vitamin D that came from beef liver. I do, however understand this strategy. We are a society that is horribly deficient in vitamin D, so let’s put it in milk, which is something that a lot of people drink. The problem becomes that then people think that they need to drink milk to get vitamin D (that’s not really a great example, but you get my point). So suddenly milk becomes an essential food for both it’s calcium and vitamin D content. And it’s definitely not essential, you can get both vitamin D and calcium from other (and in my opinion, superior) sources. Now, don’t get me wrong. I do occasionally enjoy a serving or two of gluten-free pasta without any regard for the fact that it is fortified with synthetic vitamins. But I DO NOT rely on it to get my vitamins. So that’s the difference.
Best Whole Foods Supplements
So since I’m advocating for getting all the nutrients you need from whole, nutrient-dense foods, I figured that the least I could do was take some time to talk about the best ways to utilize food as a supplement rather than taking a pill supplement, even if that pill is full of whole food sources. And I really just this that this is the best place to start, especially if you are a relatively young, healthy, and active person (and by young I’d say anyone under the age of 40 or 45), because if you don’t have any serious or chronic health issues, then it’s unlikely that you really need a lot of supplementation outside of a balanced whole-foods diet.
So what should you eat if you want to use food as your supplements?
So bone broth is going to be a great source of calcium - which you definitely don’t want to be getting from regular milk (I need to do an episode on dairy and calcium, I think I have an old blog post about it, I’ll link to that in the show notes), and a lot of people who are eating a paleo diet are worried about their calcium intake because they aren’t drinking milk, so you can definitely get plenty of calcium from bone broth. And you don’t have to just eat soup every day to get plenty of bone broth in, just use it in your cooking or drink it as your morning or evening hot beverage. If you eat rice, you can even cook your rice in it and that will give you tons more nutrients with your rice.
Liver and heart are also super nutrient-dense, and I know you are probably turning your nose up at these (I have yet to be able to eat liver, my mom always used to try to sneak it into things and I’d ALWAYS know), but you can find some recipes where you can hide a little bit in with other ingredients and you probably won’t know it’s there. Even if you are just sneaking a tablespoon or two into a pound of ground meat, that’s better than nothing.
Fermented foods are a great source of probiotics. I’m going to talk more about that in a minute.
Shellfish is another great source of micronutrients. In a lot of cases it’s actually better than organ meats for certain micronutrients, as I mentioned earlier with oysters and clams having tons of zinc and vitamin B12.
The other really important thing about fish (and shellfish) is their omega-3 content. Now this becomes especially important if you are eating nuts or nut butters more than a few times per week, because those can have more omega-6s than omega-3s and I think I’ve talked about this on the show before but you really want to make sure that you are getting more omega-3s than omega-6s and fish and shellfish are a great way to do that and can balance the omega-6s you are getting from nuts.
And then of course, vegetables. All the vegetables. We’ve talked about this a lot I feel like. But they are full of nutrients and phytochemicals that you can’t really get anywhere like antioxidants and polyphenols. So making sure you are getting plenty of vegetables is really important in making sure that you are getting all the nutrients your body needs.
Should I Take Probiotics With or Without Food?
So I just wanted to tackle one question that I get about supplements a lot and that is whether or not you should be taking a probiotic with or without food. Now, a probiotic supplement is something that a lot of people benefit from, but again, I’d be sure to talk with your healthcare professional before you start or stop taking one.
When you look at the natural sources of probiotics, some you get from a food source and some you would get from other sources. So, probiotics traditionally come from dirt and on food (like, dirt on food and because dirt has probiotics in it and the food is grown in the dirt and the probiotics get on the food). You also can get probiotics from fermented foods, so sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and other fermented foods.
When you look at probiotic supplements, a lot of them are made with organisms that are naturally occurring in the large intestines. So most companies recommend that you take them with or without food on the bottle. And the reason you would take them without food is because you want the organisms to be delivered to the large intestines without having any sort of input that makes them grow so that they actually make it to the large intestines and then when they get there, they can grow and thrive.
The reason you would want to take them with food is that it kind of mimics the way you would get them naturally, so you would naturally be getting them either from food or off of food (or if you ate dirt, but not a lot of people choose that route). But getting them with food would cause them to grow as they travel down the digestive tract and that helps them survive, so when they get to your large intestines, you can ensure that they are still alive.
And the reason why I wanted to bring this up is because there isn’t really a great answer to this. So some companies actually do testing to determine whether or not you should take their supplement with or without food and others don’t, but I would recommend doing whatever it says on the bottle of the probiotic you take (in case they have done their testing), but the reality is that there’s no clear answer one way or another when you actually look at the evidence.
You can also do some experimentation and try it with food and if that’s not working try it without after a couple of weeks. I have sort of a combo approach where I only take probiotics occasionally when I’m not eating a lot of fermented foods or sometimes if I feel like I need a little extra digestive support. If I’m taking it regularly, it gets put in with my other supplements so I’m taking it with food. But if it’s an extra thing I usually take them at night before I go to bed, so without food. I can’t say that I personally have noticed much of a difference between with or without food, but that doesn’t mean that switching it up won’t make a difference for you.
Sun Exposure and Vitamin D
I also want to briefly talk about vitamin D because it’s really important and there’s a lot of conflicting information out there. So the best way to get vitamin D is through sun exposure. You should aim for at least 15-20 minutes of sun exposure on your arms and face a few times per week. This should be enough for most people. However, if you live in a northern climate or have dark skin, you may need more. You can also get small amounts of vitamin D in food. Foods like sardines, beef liver, and pasture-raised pork are all great sources. Dietary vitamin D is not really likely to fully meet your needs, but it’s a good way to make sure you are getting enough from all sources.
If you live in a northern climate. you will likely need to supplement with vitamin D at least part of the year. And what do I mean by Northern climate? So anyone who lives North of Atlanta in the United States is at risk of vitamin D deficiency in the winter time, and anyone who lives north of I think it's Seattle, is at risk for vitamin D deficiency year-round. So I highly encourage you to get your levels tested and monitored by a practitioner because everyone responds to supplements differently and while I may need 10,000 IUs daily, you might do fine with 1,000 or 2,000 daily, but the only way to know that is to test and retest.
Also, a lot of people are scared to go out in the sun without sunscreen because of the risk for skin cancer, but not only does sunscreen not fully protect your from the deeper penetrating, cancer-causing UVA rays, but also sunscreen blocks the UVB rays that we actually need to create vitamin D. And there are studies that show that vitamin D deficiency plays a role in most cancers. So, making sure that you get sun on your skin is important, but don’t spend so much time outside in the bright sun that you get burned (because that definitely increases your risk for cancer).
Alright, that’s all for this week. Thank you so much for listening and if you are enjoying this show, I’d love it if you’d leave a rating or review on iTunes. This helps other people find the show! Shownotes for this episode will be available at marthaflorence.com/episode12. Thanks for listening and I’ll see you next week!