Do I Really Need Food Supplements?


“If we eat well and lead a healthy lifestyle, we don’t need food supplements.” But how many people today can claim of leading a healthy life? How many of us or our friends are lucky enough to eat “kilometer zero” (KM0), seasonal and organic food, sitting around a table at home, away from pollution, stress and noise of the city?

Nutrition is one of the pillars of life along with physical exercise and mental well-being. However, the conclusive evidence shows that for decades we have not eaten well (malnutrition), we eat too much (hyper nutrition), life has become sedentary and we are constantly stressed. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 1.9 billion people are overweight (with a Body Mass Index, or BMI, greater than 25) or obese (BMI higher than 30). In particular, the percentage of obese people today is about 13.2% of the entire adult world population. The figure is even more worrying if we consider that 20 years ago this percentage was almost half (7.4%) and 40 years ago about one third (4.4%). These numbers refer to the adult population. It is alarming that about 380 million children under the age of 18 are overweight or obese, of whom 41 million under the age of 5. WHO data show that we reached a paradox: for every starving (hypo nutrition) person, there are two obese or overweight. In conclusion, despite the frequent, costly and sensible diet-awareness campaigns, evidence suggests that people do not eat well.

Unfortunately, even following the right diet, we must deal with the quality of the food we eat. An analysis by the United States Department of Agriculture has shown a substantial loss of nutrients in food. Specifically, in a well-known scientific study carried out by Dr. Donald Davis, a former researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, 43 types of fruits and vegetables were analyzedbetween 1950 and 1999, studying the values ​​of minerals and vitamins. Very marked drops (on average equal to 40%) of Calcium, Vitamin C, Proteins, Iron and Phosphorus (among others) have been found. This means that a broccoli today could be very different from a broccoli that our grandparents ate. Another aspect to consider with respect to the past is the collection and storage of food. Retailers no longer follow the seasonality of food (tomatoes and carrots are available all year round) and this alters their nutrients composition. Moreover, to meet market demand, food may have been produced thousands of miles away from us, losing its “freshness”, and is treated in such a way as to arrive intact and mature on our tables. Alterations in composition occur in the heat treatments necessary for conservation, for example in dairy products. Pasteurization and sterilization allow us to keep our food safe from a microbiological point of view. However, thesetreatments trigger a series of hydrolysis and oxidation reactions that alter and deplete the fooditself.

Further alterations occur inside our home walls. Freezing food implicates the formation of large ice crystals inside it that tend to destroy the structure of cells with subsequent loss of integrity, liquids and nutrients, as well as changes in the composition of proteins, fats and sugars. Some cooking methods, using heat, induce food alterations, even very material ones. A raw zucchini as part of a salad is different from the same zucchini cooked in fried oil. In conclusion, from collection to landing at our tables, foods can undergo radical alterations, impoverishing the quality and quantity of nutrients that our body receive. Therefore, a tomato will not always be the same as another tomato, its nutritional value will depend on its origin, the period of the year, its preservation and the type of recipe used for the preparation.

To further validate the thesis of the usefulness of integrating one’s daily diet, here’s a truth that is hard to dispute: we are all different. Despite several ministries of health, universities and scientific study groups are rightly trying to find parameters of average daily nutrient intake requirements, they themselves confirm that no one is metabolically identical. As a result, the needs differ from person to person. This is also true for twins. A team of researchers from the King’s College in London and the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston recently published the results of the most important study in this area. The group examined 14,000 twins (monozygous and heterozygous), checking their daily lifestyle, including nutrition. The results were clear: monozygotic twins shared 37% of the bacteria present in their intestine against an almost equal percentage in individuals without any kinship (35%). Furthermore, genetics explained less than 50% of the difference in blood sugar levels, less than 30% of the difference in insulin and less than 20% of the difference in triglycerides. That is, despite being exposed to the same environment, leading a similar lifestyle and eating in virtually the same way, the twins responded differently. It is therefore easy to conclude that nutritional requirements, even those of monozygotic twins, are subjective and can differ considerably. Add to this that each person goes through different stages of life that require special needs compared to the norm. It is well known that, compared to usual conditions, pregnant women require more folates and Vitamin D, individuals over the age of 50 more Vitamin D, Vitamin B12 and folates, vegans more Vitamin B12, subjects on diets more Vitamins, Minerals and Essential Fatty Acids. Add to this that today’s lifestyle exposes us to less sunlight, hence an increase in need of Vitamin D.

Food supplements are not intended as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle. However, for the reasons elaborated earlier (lack of a healthy diet, significant reduction of nutrients in fresh foods and unique needs for each individual) our body may require supplementing our food intake. How shall we do it? Here are our three recommendations.

1. Always seek professional advice.
According to recent statistics, 11 million Italians search for health-related information directly via the internet (so far, so good). However, 18% would “heal” themselves without seeking medical advice and a further 20% would object to the medical diagnosis after a simple online search. This practice is dangerous and often harmful. The body is a machine as splendid as complex. We need a specialist to perform accurate analyzes of the state of our health from which to deduce the personal needs to be integrated;

2. Select only high-quality supplements.
Would you ever say that cars are created equal because they are cars? Obviously not. However, it is a common belief that Omega 3, Vitamin B12, memory supplements and probiotics are all the same. As we recently wrote in an article, this is inaccurate. It is therefore necessary to check the quality and safety of the raw materials contained in our supplement, the use of patented ingredients, the natural origin of the raw materials, theirbioavailability (i.e. the absorption of active ingredients from our body), the type of packaging (solid and that protects from deterioration), allergens and analyzes by recognized institutions and / or universities. Manufacturers of high-quality supplements are happy to share this information (on the packaging or upon request) because these represent differentiating factors compared to the multitude of suppliers of mass and poor-quality products.

3. Follow the specialist’s indications. 
Food supplement manufacturers are obliged to include on the package the exact daily dosage (quantity of product to be administered). However, as writtenearlier, individual needs are heterogeneous. As a result, intake should vary from person to person. The practice of “if one capsule makes me feel better, two make me feel twice better” is dangerous, not only for people in “non-ordinary” conditions (for example during pregnancy or in special conditions). Supplements are not drugs. However, the active ingredients contained in them must be respected.