Could There Be Holes in Your Diet? Find Out What You’re Missing

By Jack Challemÿ

Even if you’re a star eater, you may be missing crucial nutrients. Here’s why, and what to do about it.

You make an effort to eat well. You’ve built your diet around whole grains, plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and good fats. So you may reason that you don’t need to take vitamin and mineral supplements. But in my 27 years of reporting and writing on vitamin and mineral research, I’ve come to realize that there are some important reasons why diet alone simply isn’t enough.

Reason #1

Your Diet Is Probably Worse Than You Think.

Despite their best intentions, most people don’t eat enough nutrient-rich vegetables and fruit. (Depending on the study you cite, only 9 to 32 percent of Americans eat the recommended three to five servings of vegetables every day.) But even those who do may benefit from some nutritional padding. “Let’s say you’re one of the 10 percent of Americans who does eat three to five vegetables daily. Do you still need a supplement?” asks Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., an antioxidant researcher at Tufts University in Boston. “Almost certainly because, on any given day, your choice among those foods is likely to fall short in something.”

And even if you do eat your required fruit and vegetable servings, some of your other food choices may sabotage your efforts. Fried foods, for example, are loaded with oxidized (free-radical damaged) fats, which increase your risk of heart disease. Supplementing with extra vitamin E can help block the free-radical oxidation of fats in your body. (Of course, it would be better to cut out the fried foods.) On top of that, most over-the-counter and prescription drugs interfere with nutrient absorption; a high-potency multivitamin can compensate.

Reason #2

Your Food Has Lost Many of Its Nutrients.

Today, even the highest quality foods suffer some nutritional losses from the farm to the fork.

When soils are low in essential minerals because of overfarming or geographical variations, plants grown in them will also be low in minerals. Soil in parts of the Northeast, Northwest, and Florida, for example, contain virtually no selenium. Low-selenium soil yields low-selenium foods, and a low-selenium diet may increase your risk of cancer, says Harold D. Foster, Ph.D., a medical geographer and professor at the University of Victoria in Canada.

In addition, levels of water-soluble nutrients, particularly vitamin C and B vitamins, decline after harvesting and during storage, cooking, refrigeration, and reheating. In one striking example, half the folic acid in food is destroyed by cooking, says Hugh D. Riordan, M.D., a nutritionally oriented physician and head of the nonprofit Bright Spot for Health clinic in Wichita, Kan.

Reason #3

Your Body Could Be Mishandling Nutrients.

Almost 50 years ago, nutritional biochemist Roger Williams, Ph.D., coined the term “biochemical individuality” to describe how our anatomical, biochemical, and genetic differences affect how we handle nutrients, and how supplements can compensate for those differences.

If you have blue eyes instead of brown, you may need more lutein to prevent macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness among older adults. If you’re depressed, you may need more B vitamins than other people. If you smoke or drink, you need more vitamin C. If you’re older than 65 and suffer from a decreased production of stomach acid (which affects one-third of older adults), you may need larger doses of vitamin B12. And if you have cystic fibrosis, a disease that interferes with fat absorption, you may need to supplement with fat-soluble nutrients like vitamin E and beta carotene.

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to figure out your biochemical weak links. Riordan recommends asking your doctor or a clinical nutritionist to test your blood levels of vitamins and minerals. (When I underwent testing, I had low vitamin B1 levels, despite getting plenty from my diet and supplements. Larger doses of B1 supplements helped my body overcome that problem.) Without testing, it’s a trial-and-error process that works best if you’re trying to ease a specific health problem, like arthritis, because you can clearly measure the results after taking supplements for a month.

Reason #4

You Need Extra Help Fighting Diseases and Aging.

Supplements are no fountain of youth, but evidence suggests some can slow the aging process and reduce your risk of age-related diseases like heart disease and cancer. For example, volatile molecules called free radicals chip away at your body’s cells and age them.

Antioxidants like vitamins E and C limit free radical damage. But it’s tough to get enough vitamin E from your food to ward off disease and slow aging; Blumberg favors vitamin E supplements because you would have to consume a large amount of calorie- and fat-laden foods, like salad dressing, to get adequate amounts of the vitamin from diet alone.

Incredible as it might sound, supplements can even compensate for many genetic defects. Beginning in the 1940s, the late pediatrician Henry Turkel, M.D., used a comprehensive vitamin regimen to treat children with Down syndrome. The earlier children started the program, the more normal their physical and mental development. The supplements seemed to help overcome some of the symptoms of the disability. Another example: Many people carry genetic defects in a key enzyme involved in folic acid metabolism, which increases their risk of heart disease and, in women, raises the risk of delivering children with neural tube defects. Folic acid supplements can compensate for this defect.

The Bottom Line

The Best Way to Get the Nutrients You Need Is with Diet and Supplements.

Study after study has found that people with the highest intake of vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients tend to be the healthiest. The best way to achieve that intake is to use both supplements and food in smart ways.

The first step is to eat a diversity of fruits and vegetables (at least five servings a day), cut way back on refined carbohydrates, and eliminate harmful fats, including the partially hydrogenated oils found in most processed foods. (For more on diet, see “Why Food Is the Foundation.”)

To build your supplement regimen, start with a high-potency multivitamin-multi-mineral if you’re in relatively good health. If you’re a man or postmenopausal woman, avoid supplements with iron, because this mineral is associated with an increased risk of heart disease. If you start taking a supplement for a specific condition, give it 30 days and then ask yourself whether it has made a difference. You might consider working with a clinical nutritionist or a nutritionally oriented physician. (You can locate one through the Designs for Health Institute at or the American College for Advancement in Medicine at A complete work-up, including measurement of your vitamin and mineral levels, will identify what you’re not getting from your diet or not absorbing from food.

Finally, studies show that certain supplements are a sure bet to prevent or treat illness. Here are five to consider:

COENZYME Q10. Reported to be useful in supporting cardiovascular health, CoQ10 boosts cell-energy levels, and may be a good all-round energy booster. Take 30 mg daily.

LUTEIN. Growing evidence points to lutein’s essential role in maintaining eye health. Supplements contain either natural lutein esters or free lutein. Take 5 to 10 mg daily.

OMEGA-3 FATS. About 2,000 scientific studies support the importance of omega-3 fats (fatty acids) to health. Research has found that they reduce the risk of heart disease and arrhythmia and also have powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Take 3 to 4 g daily, or eat at least two servings a week of cold-water fish like salmon or mackerel. Vegetarian sources include flaxseeds and flaxseed oil.

VITAMIN C. You might have seen recent news stories about a study that found that vitamin C can damage DNA. But it’s unwise to give up on vitamin C based on one test-tube study; hundreds of existing studies show that it helps prevent diseases including cancer. Take 500 to 2,000 mg daily. (High doses of vitamin C may cause diarrhea. Reduce your dose if this occurs.)

VITAMIN E. Maybe the most-studied supplement, vitamin E is the vitamin of choice for reducing the risk of heart disease. Take 400 to 800 IU daily of the natural form, d-alpha-tocopherol. (Check with your doctor before combining E with a prescription blood thinner.)

Source: Natural Health Magazine, September 2001. © 2003 Weider Publications, Inc.

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