I am not opposed to supplements. However, I do find myself increasingly critical of the heavy reliance often placed on them. The more I read, the more I realize how little most of us (myself included) know about our supplements. For instance, health gurus are urging us to take astaxanthin, the latest miracle antioxidant. On some level, most of us know that it probably takes some doing to get astaxanthin into a capsule but most of us have no idea where it actually comes from. The answer: Some astaxanthin is carbon dioxide extracted from algae. Some is extracted from “shrimp waste” using hexane and/or acetone di-ethylamine. That shrimp waste comes from . . . well, it is difficult to learn where it comes from. A shrimp farm in Thailand? A shrimp packing factory in Louisiana? Although those of us taking supplements are often as concerned about the health of the world as we are about our own health, we usually do not know whether the supplements we are taking, the factories the supplements are made in, and the raw materials they are made from are sustainable.
I am just beginning to explore this world supplement manufacturing but I am already convinced that, while supplements may have their place, they are without question a poor substitute for real, whole food. To me it is definitional: To supplement means to “add to.” Supplements should always be an addition to a healthy diet, not a cure for an imbalanced diet.
For instance, consider lung cancer: As we discuss in class, smokers who eat a lot of fruits and vegetables are more protected from lung cancer than non-smokers who do not eat fruits and vegetables. People who eat lots of fruits and vegetables have less cardiovascular disease than people who do not. However, when science attempts to pinpoint why — what in the vegetables and fruits is conferring this incredible benefit — their studies fail to come up with the answer. Smokers taking a beta-carotene supplement (an antioxidant found in vegetables such as carrots) have a higher rate of lung cancer than those not taking a supplement. Men taking a vitamin E supplement, a heart protective antioxidant, have more heart problems than those not taking the supplement. Women taking a multi-vitamin reportedly have a higher mortality rate than those who do not.
The latest study showing the synergy of whole foods – meaning the value of real, whole foods is greater than the sum of the parts in that food – compared fish and fish oil capsules. Many of us take fish oil capsules to rebalance our ratio of omega 6:3 fats, a ratio thrown off by poor eating habits. Instead of moderating our grain and vegetable oil intake and making sure our diet includes omega 3–rich foods, we turn to fish oil capsules. Many, if not most, of these capsules contain fish oil made from small fish like Menhaden. While there is a serious debate about this, some say our fish oil use is rapidly depleting the stores of small fish that our wild fish need to survive. In other words, our fish oil consumption may be unsustainable.
Moreover, these capsules are not as effective as simply eating some fish now and again. We could achieve the same benefits using less fish if we ate fish rather than fish oil capsules. In a recent study, healthy adults were variously fed fish (about 3 ounces/day) or given fish oil capsules (1 or 3 capsules per day). Each capsule contained 150 mg EPA and 106 mg DHA. (EPA and DHA are two long chain omega-3 fats we want from fish.) The levels of these fats were also measured in the study volunteers two weeks before the treatment started, before beginning the regimen, and at week 6. Blood levels of the beneficial omega-3 fats quickly rose to much higher levels in those eating fish. Researchers estimated that it would take more than twice the amount of EPA (800 mg) and 9 times the amount of DHA (4500 mg) in the form of fish oil capsules to achieve the results seen in those eating fish. In other words, fish delivers the good omega-3 fats we want much, much more efficiently than fish oil does.
Ultimately, simply eating real fish, even infrequently and in small amounts, is much better than regularly taking fish capsules. (This is especially true as there are indications that taking more than 1 or 2 grams of fish oil per day begins to deplete vitamin E stores, creating a different set of problems that does not occur in those eating fish.) In fact, someone trying to raise their DHA levels could do so simply by eating no more than 2/3 of an ounce of salmon a day. Salmon filets are often available at $6.99/pound. That translates to about three weeks worth of omega 3 fats for $6.99, less expensive than fish oil and with the important side benefit: You are not participating in perhaps depleting important food sources for our wild fish.
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