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It’s estimated that over a third of the Irish population takes a health supplement daily and over half the population use natural health products on a regular basis. The fact that we spend millions of Euros every year on supplements certainly justifies asking the question; Are they good for us or are we literally flushing our hard earned cash down the toilet and damaging our health to boot?
It’s a complex issue and one that divides opinion even amongst health professionals. To help you make an informed choice, it’s important to understand that not all supplements are created equal and there are pro’s and con’s to taking them. Below addresses the most common questions I receive in relation to vitamins & supplements and should give you an overview:
Supplements Defined - Are they medicines, are they foods, are they drugs, are they natural, are they synthetic, what exactly are they? The term ‘supplement’ is a broad ambiguous term which causes a lot of confusion in itself. Put simply, a food supplement is a preparation intended to supply nutrients, (such as vitamins, minerals, fatty acids or amino acids) that are missing or not consumed in sufficient quantity in a person’s diet. Some countries define supplements as foods, while in others they are defined as drugs.
Are supplements necessary? - Whilst it’s true that every nutrient we need can be found in food, the reality is that even those who eat a well-balanced diet may be lacking in some of the most basic nutrients. With our overly processed food supply, as well as chemically abused farm soils, our foods typically contain less vitamins and minerals than they did just several decades ago. Fruit and vegetables from supermarkets can often be nutrient deprived due to excessively long storages times. In addition, most fruit and vegetables are picked before reaching their peak nutrient content so that they ripen before reaching supermarket shelves.
Overfed & Undernourished - Our society craves nutrient depleting food. Many of us have developed a taste for foods made from white flour, trans fats and sugar. These foods have no nutritional value but still require nutrients in order to be processed in the body. In effect, they rob us of nutrients. We also ingest an abnormal amount of chemicals through our food, water and air. These chemicals also require nutrients from our bodies in order to excrete them. In addition, chronic stress has become part and parcel of modern living and stress in itself can deplete vitamins and minerals so it’s no wonder our nutritional needs are often unmet.
Natural Vs. Synthetic - Without doubt our bodies will absorb vitamins from whole food sources much more readily compared to vitamins from synthetic sources. Put simply, the human body has evolved for millions of years to digest foods found in nature. Most synthetically produced supplements are chemical compounds that cannot be found in nature, hence the human body may have trouble recognizing these ingredients. Bottom line is that if the human body was given the choice between real and fake it would always prefers real.
Not all supplements are created equal - Various brands differ greatly in terms of quality. Buy a cheap supermarket supplement and you’ll end up with synthetic vitamins or minerals that our bodies can find difficult to absorb. In addition, synthetic supplements will often isolate specific nutrients and sell them as such. However, nature does not produce any nutrient in an isolated form. The nutrients in food work together in a synergistic fashion. For an isolated nutrient to work properly in the body it needs all the other nutrients that are present in the food too. As a rule it’s best to purchase supplements from health food stores who carry quality brands and opt for a whole food supplement where possible.
The Risks - As a nutritional therapist I have never come across anyone who has suffered significant health damage from taking supplements but that doesn’t mean it’s not important to exercise caution. Certain supplements pose greater health risks than others. For example, the fat soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K) have the ability to be stored within the body so therefore have the potential to reach toxic levels. The water soluble vitamins such as the B vitamins or Vitamin C cannot be stored so even if you take too much the body will simply excrete what it doesn’t need making for some pretty expensive urine! Minerals like calcium and iron should also be taken with caution as an overload of either can have detrimental effects.
Protein Supplements - I see a lot of young men who rely heavily on protein supplements to bulk up. It’s a lot easier than most people realise to overdose on protein. If you eat protein with every meal and then consume protein bars and shakes, the chances are you are consuming too much protein. We need approximately 0.8g of protein per kilo of body weight so do the math before you start supplementing. Long term excessive protein intake can lead to kidney damage as well as calcium deficiencies. Choose protein supplements carefully. Avoid synthetic proteins and those which contain sugar and artificial sweeteners. Natural pea or soy based protein powders are best.
Bottom Line - The bottom line is that supplements can be beneficial if prescribed and taken in the right way for the right reason. Problems arise when people self diagnose and self prescribe using ‘Dr. Google’ instead of a health care practitioner who can assess their nutritional needs. In my nutrition clinic, I only prescribe supplements where necessary and take a ‘food first’ approach. I may prescribe natural supplements to clients who present with deficiency symptoms or absorption issues and I’d highly rate a number of supplements for assisting with conditions such as IBS, migraine, reflux, high cholesterol, and PMS.
However, supplements should never be viewed as a substitute for a healthy diet. Ultimately the best way to invest in your health is to eat a wide variety of natural whole foods which are locally grown and in season. If you eat a diet that is predominantly made up of fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and lentils and limit nutrient depleting food (sugar, white flour, alcohol, caffeine) then you most likely will not require food supplements. Food is one of the most powerful tools we can use to ensure good health and it goes without saying that good health is worth the price, it’s the best investment you’ll ever make.
Elsa Jones is a qualified nutritional therapist. She offers one-to-one consultations and devises nutrition plans tailored to meet individual health needs. www.elsajonesnutrition.ie
Veggie burgers can be dry and tasteless, but these ones are bursting with flavour. They’re super quick to make up, particularly if you use leftover quinoa. I love them paired with chunky guacamole or salsa and a crunchy green salad.
Ingredients (makes 6 burgers)
1 cup (approx. 200g) cooked chickpeas (if tinned, rinse and drain)
1 cup cooked and cooled quinoa
¼ cup rolled oats
1 small red onion, finely chopped
Half a red pepper, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped or minced
3 tablespoons fresh lime or lemon juice (I prefer lime)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh coriander
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon chilli powder or paprika
1–2 tablespoons flour of your choice, for dusting
1 tablespoon oil of your choice for frying
Place all the ingredients except the flour and oil into a food processor and pulse until well combined and fairly smooth.
Sprinkle some flour onto a chopping board as well as your hands. Scoop up some of the burger mixture shape into the size of a golf ball, then press gently to make a burger shape. Continue until you have made six equal-sized burgers. Cover and refrigerate until needed.
(Recipe take from Goodbye Sugar Book)
When ready, heat a large pan over a medium heat and drizzle in the oil. Cook the burgers for about 4 minutes on each side, until light golden brown.
Serve with a green salad for a tasty and filling lunch or dinner. These also work well paired with guacamole or salsa.
End Mindless Eating
Discussion on healthy eating tends to focus on what we eat. Much less attention is paid to how we eat. Yet, if you want to have a truly healthy relationship with food and manage your weight, you’ll need to learn how to eat slowly and mindfully for the following reasons.
Firstly, when you eat slowly, your brain has time to register when you’re full. Research shows that there is a time delay of up to twenty minutes between when your stomach fills up and your brain registers that you’re full. The more slowly you eat, the more time you give your brain to register that you’re full so that it can signal you to stop eating.
The second reason is that when you eat mindfully – and by that I mean when you pay attention to what and how much you’re eating and savour each mouthful – you are much more likely to feel satisfied when the food is gone.
Mindless eating can be defined as eating food without paying adequate attention to what and how much is being eaten. Eating mindlessly undermines healthy eating and weight management by causing you to eat too much, make poor food choices and lose touch with feelings of hunger and fullness. It’s rare you’ll feel satisfied after eating something mindlessly.
Are you a mindless eater?
Have you every eaten a meal whilst watching TV or on your computer and then felt disappointed and dissatisfied when the food was gone? You may have thought “where did it go? I feel like I’ve hardly eaten anything’. Or, you may have looked down at an empty packet of biscuits and hardly remember eating them. Perhaps you eat on the run whilst completing various tasks or getting from one place to the other…..
If this sounds like you, I’d strongly suggest that you start engaging in some simple ‘mindful eating’ practises as set out below. If you tune into your body whilst eating, you’ll enjoy your food so much more and will be more likely to feel full and satisfied with less food.
How to become a mindful eater
Eat sitting down - The best way to become more conscious of everything you put in your mouth is to only ever eat sitting down. Most of the eating people do whilst standing up is impulse eating. So, for example, nibbling on something you see when opening the fridge to get something else out, grabbing a chocolate as you walk past an open box sitting on your colleagues table, or, taking little nibbles as you prepare food or clean up after meals.
There’s a real tendency to think that little nibbles here or there whilst going about your business don’t actually count or won’t have any consequences. But here’s the thing, all the little nibbles here and there do count and will have consequences. So, it’s important that you make every bite count.
Not only will eating sitting down make you feel more physically satisfied, it will also make you feel more psychologically satisfied if you see a full meal or snack spread out in front of you rather than grabbing bites here or there whilst on the move.
Eat slowly - There are several reasons why it’s important that you eat slowly. As previously mentioned, the slower you eat, the more time you give your brain to register that you’re full. In addition, eating slowly, allows time for you to really notice and savour every mouthful and enhances the digestive process.
To help you slow down, I’d suggest that you take note of the time at the beginning and end of a chosen meal. Once you have a rough idea of how long it takes you to eat a meal, you can work to prolong the time little by little at subsequent meals where possible.
A good way to train yourself to eat slower is to make a point of putting your utensils down a couple of times during the meal and taking a break from eating for a minute or two. Take a few deep breaths, have a sip of water or engage in some conversation before you resume eating. Take small bites and chew well.
Pay attention to what you’re eating - If you’re distracted while you eat, it will reduce the degree of satisfaction you get from your food. Do what you can to eat in a relaxed environment and where possible, turn off or move away from media devices such as TV, laptops, tablets, smart phones etc. This way you can focus intently on your food. Notice the flavour and texture of everything you eat and savour each bite.
Hone your skills - Try eating without distraction for one meal a day or even for a couple of meals a week to help you master the skill of eating slowly and paying attention to your food. Then incorporate these skills into your normal eating conditions as best you can. The idea is to minimise distractions when you eat, but ultimately, you’ll need to be able to eat slowly and mindfully even if you cant control your environment e.g. being distracted by kids, colleagues etc.
In the beginning you’ll have to make a conscious effort to eat slowly and mindfully, but, with practise, it will soon become second nature to you and you’ll enjoy and digest your food all the better for it.
An extract from bestselling book ‘Goodbye Sugar’ by Elsa Jones