For a long time I’ve thought that vitamins and supplements were a complete waste of money. When I was a student, I remember going for several days without consuming a single fruit or vegetable (I shudder at the very idea now). Once I remember deciding I should supplement my diet with a multivitamin. (I want to shout at myself WHY DIDN’T YOU JUST GO AND BUY SOME VEGETABLES?!!!, but fresh produce can seem expensive when you’re on a student budget, and in those days it wasn’t a priority.) So I went to the chemist and bought the multivitamin that had the most amount of things in it for the least amount of money. At the time, I felt no different, and concluded I should have saved my pennies.
My thoughts now? Of course it was a waste of money! However, my feelings on supplementing my diet have started to change as I’ve got older and become more interested in and knowledgeable about health and wellness. Cheap multivitamins made synthetically in a lab aren’t worth bothering with, but they aren’t the only way to try to increase the nutrients you ingest. How about starting with real food? I now think that there can be a place for (high quality, naturally sourced) supplements, but the first step should always be looking at our diets and making adjustments there.
Getting enough nutrition from the food we eat
Can we get all the nutrition we need from a balanced diet? Possibly…but are we actually getting a balanced diet?
In an ideal world our diet would provide all the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that our bodies need to remain healthy. Thing is, we don’t live in an ideal world. Most people eat a diet high in refined sugar and refined carbohydrates, and pretty low in fruit and vegetables. In the UK the guidelines are 5 portions of fruit and veg a day. In Australia, it’s 5 portions of veg and 2 portions of fruit. Whilst I don’t know where these numbers come from, I do think it’s useful to have guidelines, although I find it strange that no consideration is given to whether (or how) they are cooked, or to variety. If I made a vegetable stew and boiled it for 2 hours I could eat 5 portions of veg, but would I be benefiting from great nutrition? Probably not.
These days I aspire to eat at least that number of fresh fruit and vegetables a day. Many people, I suspect, do not come close. For those of you who still like to think that strawberry jam on toast counts as one of your portions of daily fruit and vegetables, you’re probably not getting all the nutrition you could from your diet!
Even if you are eating a good amount of fruit and veg, there are other things to consider. Scientists have documented how the nutritional value of fresh produce has gone down since the 1930s. Why is this? Well, crops are grown for size, resistance to disease and for quicker harvests, not nutrition. Crops grown in poor soils do not have access to trace elements. This is one reason why organic produce is often cited to have greater nutritional content.
The other major factor is that our bodies are exposed to far more pollutants than in the past. There are heavy metals like lead and mercury, UV radiation and we are exposed to huge amounts of chemicals from traffic and factory emissions, plastics, pesticides, even skincare and household cleaning products. We are bombarded with these chemicals. Our bodies are working overtime trying to rid them from our systems. By providing our bodies with all the nutrients that they need we are giving ourselves the best opportunity to stay healthy.
Good diet and nutrition are our health insurance for when we get older. After spending our twenties feeling invincible, as the years pass we start to realise that we can no longer get away with long weekends of drinking, surviving on minimal sleep, living off takeaway and packet meals and eating only buttered toast for dinner. (Maybe this realisation doesn’t happen to everyone, but it’s happened to a good number of people I know, and it happened to me.)
Another thing that caused a major change in my perspective was moving to Australia. In the UK, doctors and hospitals are free. Here they are not. That’s changed my outlook. If I want to avoid the expense of going to the doctor then I need to keep myself as healthy as possible. Doctors generally don’t work by addressing underlying causes anyway; they treat symptoms instead. They test for things and maybe prescribe some medicine to make problems go away, but most don’t look at what caused the problem in the first place. There’s nothing less helpful than going to the doctor with a problem and after many tests, being told that – great news! – you haven’t got x or y disease… but they still don’t know what’s wrong. When you’re out of pocket too, it’s even worse. Much better to try to stop the problems starting in the first place, I think.
What can I do to improve my diet?
The great news is there’s loads of things you can do to make your diet more nutritious. Try some (or all) of these tips!
1. Buy organic! Organic foods are considered more nutritious, and contain more phytonutrients and trace minerals than non-organic crops because they are grown in better quality soils. In addition they are grown without the use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers which means less chemical residues entering our bodies and overloading our systems. (If you are interested in knowing more, the Soil Association have published an 88 page review of more than 400 studies entitled “Organic Farming, Food Quality and Human Health” which makes interesting reading.)
Organic food can be more expensive. If you’re on a budget, focus on swapping the foods known to be highest in pesticide residues. Every year the Environmental Working Group publish a list of the 12 worst offenders – known as the ‘Dirty Dozen’. The dirty dozen for 2013 are: apples, celery, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, hot peppers, nectarines, peaches, potatoes, spinach, strawberries, sweet bell peppers plus Kale/collard greens and summer squash. Yep, I know that’s fourteen – they added two bonus ones! Rather helpfully, they also publish a list called the ‘Clean Fifteen’, which are the crops least contaminated by pesticides. If you can’t afford a completely organic diet, these are the safest of the conventional produce. In 2013 these are: sweetcorn, onions, pineapple, avocado, cabbage, frozen peas, papaya, mango, asparagus, eggplant/aubergine, kiwi, grapefruit, cantaloupe melon, sweet potato and mushrooms.
2. Eat plenty of vegetables. They are nature’s gift to us! That doesn’t mean you have to eat boring plates of boiled vegetables – get creative! If you don’t like them, sneak them in by disguising them. You can even make dessert with them – everyone’s heard of carrot cake but you can also make courgette cake and I’ve seen chocolate brownies made with both sweet potato and beetroot. Try my chocolate avocado mousse! Or drink them – green smoothies taste far better than a big bowl of raw kale.
3. Choose wholefoods. Whole foods are foods eaten as close to their natural state as possible. They are unrefined, unprocessed, or have had only minimal processing, and are consequently more nutritious. (Find the Wikipedia definition of whole foods here). There is still a need to make sure they are prepared properly. A simple way to check if something is made of real food is to look at the ingredients list on the packet. If there’s more than a few ingredients, or there are more than a few names that you can’t pronounce, don’t buy it. Better still, shop at bulk produce stores instead of buying things in packets.
Another test is the great-grandmother test. Would your (or someone’s) great-grandmother know what it is? No? Don’t buy it.
4. Substitutions. Wherever you can, try to substitute less nutritious foods for more nutritious ones. Start slowly and build it up. I don’t mean swapping chocolate for lettuce! Maybe swap milk chocolate for dark chocolate that is lower in sugar and higher in cocoa products, and choose organic fairtrade which doesn’t come with all the nasty additives. Rather than chocolate with cookie pieces choose a bar with dried fruit or nuts. Rather than toast for breakfast, try porridge with organic oats and topped with banana and yoghurt. I love having a green smoothie for breakfast because I’ve already eaten four portions of fruit and veg before I’ve even left the house – it really sets me up for the day.
5. Keep it Simple. Less ingredients, but better quality ones. Real ones! Don’t fill up on chemicals, additives and preservatives. They offer no nutritional value and are no good for us.
When should I reach for the supplements?
I wholeheartedly believe that the first step should be looking at your diet, and identifying where you can make improvements. That being said, sometimes supplements are necessary. Different people have different needs. Our bodies do a great job of telling us when they need something; we just need to learn to listen to them. If you follow a vegan diet you need to ensure you have a source of vitamin B12. If you have been diagnosed as having a deficiency, taking tablets may be a great way to restore your levels to normal quickly. Always choose the best quality supplements that you can afford, and ALWAYS choose naturally sourced ones rather than synthetic copies; they are absorbed by our bodies much better. If there’s a food source on the label, it’s an indication it has come from something natural.