Why take supplements?
I am often asked whether it is necessary to take vitamin and mineral supplements and why we can’t get all we need from a healthy diet. The truth is that since World War II, the quality of our food has seriously declined, and there is no such thing as a healthy diet any more. Agricultural intensification has produced cheap, plentiful food that lacks quality. Along with nutrient deficiencies in our food supply, we have unprecedented levels of sugar, salt, toxic metals, hormones and synthetic chemicals in our food which stop nutrients being absorbed or even actively promote their loss.
Crops have suffered significant mineral losses due to intensive farming practices. On average there has been a 40% reduction in mineral content in fruits and vegetables over the last 60 years. Given that more and more salad vegetables are grown hydroponically (in limited nutrient solutions, not in soil!), trace elements that would be present in organically grown vegetables can often be missing entirely. Add long storage times, food processing and cooking practices, and even more nutrients are lost. This is a serious health concern because we simply can’t do without the nutrients with which we have evolved, and it hasn’t yet been prioritised sufficiently by the government
Trace minerals such as zinc and magnesium are required for enzyme reactions in the human body such as energy production, proper functioning of nerves and muscles, bone and teeth formation, growth and reproduction, immunity and a healthy brain. If we are deficient in any one of these, it will directly affect our health, often without us even realising. Some people seem to have a higher requirement for nutrients and will be more affected than others. This could be due to their genetic inheritance, poor digestion or lifestyle.
As the quality of our food supply diminishes, the need for minerals and other key nutrients such as vitamins, enzymes, essential fatty acids, amino acids and probiotics increases. Taking these micronutrients as supplements has become not just an option for many people, it has actually become a necessity. We simply can’t afford to lose quality supplements.
Are vitamin and mineral supplements safe?
For some reason their safety is increasingly being questioned, although nutritional supplements are the safest group of products consumed by humans, even safer than foods and by far safer than medicines. There seems to be no objection to self-medicating with commercially produced painkillers and antacids, regardless of their documented side-effects. Studies that use synthetic forms of vitamins instead of natural forms, or those that are scientifically flawed are often sensationalised in the media. We have to ask ourselves who is paying for the negative articles in the press, and why data showing the efficacy of nutrients in clinical practice is largely ignored.
The question of safety is actually quite bizarre. Society’s almost hysterical obsession with safety is being exploited to the point where natural substances which have played key roles in our physical evolution and without which we would not exist, are suddenly required to be proved “safe”. It’s a bit like banning a banana unless you can prove it’s safe!
Why do doctors tell us that all we need is a healthy balanced diet and that taking supplements is a waste of time and money?
The outdated myth of “a healthy balanced diet” is clearly contributing to the incidence of disease. I meet dedicated NHS professionals who are very well informed, but we need to bear in mind that doctors don’t receive any significant nutritional training at medical school and aren’t necessarily nutritional experts.(If interested in the fundamentals of nutrition, contact the British Association of Nutritional Therapists who can recommend courses or reading material. They also have a list of qualified nutritional therapists if specific advice on diet and supplementation is required (www.bant.org.uk).
It is a fact that our environment, diet and cooking practices have fundamentally changed over the last century. Some may simply choose not to accept it, for their own reasons. But one only has to look around to see obesity, heart disease and diabetes at unprecedented levels, and asthma, eczema and allergies in every class in schools. There is an epidemic of mental health problems, learning and behavioural disorders. Antisocial behaviour is also on the rise. But we can do something about this: studies show that many young offenders have serious nutritional deficiencies and their behaviour significantly improves when given supplements and a reasonable diet. We find the same with children’s behaviour and academic performance. That’s why it’s important to oppose the EU Food Supplements Directive which aims to prohibit 75% of our most effective vitamin and mineral forms. In time it is set to dramatically lower maximum allowed dosages as well as limiting all other nutrients in supplement form, such as essential fatty acids, amino acids, plant extracts, enzymes and probiotics.
What is your greatest concern?
I am particularly concerned about the deliberate “dumbing down” of the public since the EU Directive, in combination with a parallel piece of EU legislation on ‘nutrition and health claims’, will affect how much we know about the importance of vitamins and minerals for our mental and physical well-being. Many people will never realise they can considerably improve the quality of their lives and their children’s lives. Those that do realise, will be denied the opportunity when quality supplements have been legislated out of existence. It is odd how we are actively encouraged to consume artificial sweeteners, drugs and fluoride, but told that vitamins are dangerous!
I have come to the conclusion that much recent legislation has been the result not of science, but is entirely due to the economic and cultural power of wealthy multinational pressure-groups. I am not against global pharmaceutical companies, but against some of their marketing practices and the strategies used to achieve this dominance. Drug companies cannot ultimately be commercially interested in the promotion of drug-free health as they are in business to design and sell drugs. So, I don’t blame the industry for “trying it on”, but I do blame those we elect if they go along with it. Of course supplementation isn’t the answer to all our problems but if we are no longer in a position to use them, it’s a sinister development.
What can consumers do now?
Tomorrow (12th July 2005), the European Court of Justice will make a decision about whether the EU Directive is legal and whether or not the Directive should be amended. Anyone concerned about the Directive should write or send an email to their MP and MEP today asking them to oppose this legislation. Every letter makes a difference. Tell them why you take nutritional supplements and highlight your concerns about the EU Directives. You can find the name of your MP by calling 020 7219 4272 or visit www.locata.co.uk/commons. You can find the name of your MEP by calling 020 7227 4300, or visit: http://www.europarl.org.uk/uk_meps/MembersMain.htm
Also, this EU legislation is gathering steam as the template for international guidelines under the helm of the United Nation’s Codex Alimentarius Commission. See US film producer Kevin Miller’s stunning new documentary “We Become Silent”, by clicking on the banner at the top of the Alliance for Natural Health’s website, www.alliance-natural-health.org.
© 2011 Martina Watts MSc Nut Med, First Published Brighton Argus July 2005