If you’re shopping outside the produce section on a regular basis then you are almost certainly lacking in important vitamins, minerals, and enzymes. The reason for this? Unfortunately, most packaged foods these days barely resemble anything a human being should actually be eating.
This is a sad fact and a hard truth and it’s easy to lose motivation, especially when you learn that even fresh produce can put you at risk thanks to pesticides sprayed on your non-organic fruits and vegetables; and even finding their way into the soil of clean, organic crops (1).
The nutrient value of our food supply has drastically degraded due to soil that lacks vital nutrients and our digestive systems have been compromised by genetically modified foods (GMOs) as well as nasty toxic chemicals, such as glyphosate, that has been linked to an increase in cancer (2).
Eating a fundamentally organic, nutrient-rich diet is your best bet for providing your body with key vitamins for optimal health.
But what if your diet is brimming in antioxidants and nutrients, and you still find yourself feeling sluggish?
This is when a vitamin supplement may help you out.
You absolutely can’t go wrong with eating foods straight from nature, but sometimes your body needs a vitamin boost to simply fill in some gaps where you may be lacking in your diet.
Or perhaps you have an underlying health condition that requires additional vitamins and nutrients.
It may seem straightforward enough to head to your local drugstore and stock up on the various vitamin bottles on display, but what isn’t so obvious is whether or not you’re actually purchasing a whole foods supplement or a synthetic version (that may actually create health issues instead of helping to address them).
We don’t blame you if you’re scratching your head in confusion and if you have no idea where to begin, you’ve come across the right article!
Today we’ll help to clear up the confusion and miscommunication surrounding vitamins so you can be sure you aren’t putting your health at risk.
What Is A Truly Natural Nutrient?
Natural nutrients, in their purest form, are those nutrients your body is absorbing directly from that succulent peach or that crisp, sweet apple.
Simply put, It is a nutrient in its most natural form before anything has been done to it.
Natural nutrients are used in the process to create whole food supplements and are healthy and safe for your body, so don’t be discouraged by the fact it comes in a bottle.
The trick is to arm yourself with all the knowledge you need to ensure you are purchasing a supplement that contains no harmful synthetics.
What Are Synthetic Supplements?
We’re sorry to have to be the bearer of bad news, but if your cabinets are stocked up with drugstore brand vitamins, you’re more than likely exposing yourself to synthetic chemicals.
Synthetic vitamins are isolated nutrients that are usually created in a lab or through some kind of industrial process.
They are designed to mimic the way your body would naturally absorb chemicals from food by attempting to recreate the outer shell of vitamins, however, they are not able to create the inner, vital part of the vitamin that should provide your body with live enzymes and energy.
This makes them very difficult for the body to absorb and may actually contribute to health problems.
The problem with isolating nutrients, according to studies, is that your body is not able to fully utilize the vitamin without its synergistic counterpart (3).
Isolating nutrients also comes with some very real dangers.
Fat-soluble vitamins build up in the body and if too much of one nutrient is taken, such as Vitamin A, D E and K, it places great strain on the liver and can cause some serious health issues and may even be life-threatening over time (4)!
Even water-soluble vitamins have their faults if you’re purchasing the synthetic versions.
For example, the man-made form of Vitamin C, called ascorbic acid, is not well absorbed by the body and most will be flushed out in the urine (5). Because so much is being excreted it places unnecessary strain on the kidneys, liver and other body systems.
It may seem baffling that these types of supplements are even allowed on the shelves, but just like with synthetic skincare products, synthetic vitamins are cheaper to produce, more stable and allow manufacturers to keep them on shelves for years without deteriorating. While this is ideal for the companies producing them in bulk, it’s not so great for the consumers filling their bodies with them.
What Are Whole Food Supplements?
Whole food supplements have nothing to hide and the name describes everything you need to know.
They are produced from concentrated and dehydrated whole foods and are 100% natural.
Your body recognizes these natural nutrients and they are easily absorbed where they can help to fill in nutritional gaps by infusing your cells with a dose of pure nutrients, vitamins, minerals, enzymes and antioxidants.
The body utilizes what it needs from whole food supplements and any excess is naturally excreted from the body, gently and safely. You will never have to worry about toxic amounts being built up in the body and putting you at risk.
Unlike synthetic, isolated nutrients, whole food nutrients still contain all their natural trace minerals, along with enzymes, proteins, lipids and other nutrients that help the body use and digest it.
This ensures your body gets everything it needs without any concentrated amounts being built up and your body will be better able to absorb nutrients from whole food supplements.
To put it simply, whole food supplements will help to address any nutritional deficiencies effectively, whereas synthetic supplements may just be excreted or place strain on the body systems without really providing the body with any benefits.
This isn’t always the case, we’ll talk about this a little later on, but generally synthetic vitamins are not recognized by the body and therefore, the body won’t put them to proper use.
The Problem With Labels
Now that you know a little more about the difference between synthetic and whole food supplements, you may be wondering how you can know for sure whether or not the vitamins you are purchasing are really all natural.
First things first!
Often, with natural, whole food supplements, the food source from which the nutrient is obtained will be listed on the bottle. They will be labeled as 100% plant or animal-based.
Similarly to the relaxed natural skincare labelling requirements, a supplement has to contain only 10% plant-based ingredients in order to be labeled as “natural” so knowing how to read a label is definitely in your favor and will help you to avoid any mishaps (6, 7).
Synthetic vitamins, on the other hand, will have a chemical name listed on the bottle, however, don't confuse this with natural scientific names.
For example, a B12 supplement may seem straightforward enough, however there are two types of B12, but you’ll need to know what name to look for.
The synthetic version of B12 is called cyanocobalamin. This form of B12 is synthetically made and has to undergo a process in your body to convert it to its most bioavailable form, methylcobalamin, after which very little is actually absorbed by the body.
The natural version is methylcobalamin and you’re likely to find this form at a health store, instead of your local drugstore. Food sources for methylcobalamin can be found in animal foods like eggs, meat and fish, but don’t stress if you follow a plant-based diet. B12 is abundant in vegetable sources including sea veggies and certain grains. Nutritional yeast is also an excellent source of this energy-boosting vitamins. Try adding it to your pasta for a “cheesy” flavor!
Other examples include, but are not limited to, Vitamin A versus its synthetic counterpart; retinyl palmitate and Vitamin E versus its synthetic version; dl-alpha tocopherol (a good rule of thumb is to know that the "dl" form of any vitamin is synthetic).
Strategically Combining Foods for Increasing Nutrient Absorption and Bioavailability
Knowing how to boost nutrient absorption of your foods will go a long way in ensuring you avoid any unnecessary nutritional deficiencies.
Eating seasonally or locally is always a good idea, but here are just a few food pairings that will help to make them more bioavailable so your body can truly make the most of the nutrients they contain.
Turmeric and Black Pepper
Turmeric has potent anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties and one of my favorite ways to enjoy it is in a dairy free golden milk, along with a pinch of pepper. Black pepper helps to increase the bioavailability of turmeric.
This drink is also wonderful for improving sleep quality so you can wake up feeling rested and ready to tackle the day in an optimistic and mindful way!
Plant-Based Iron and Vitamin C
The best way to get the most out of your iron-rich plant-based foods is to pair them with Vitamin C, which helps to break the iron down into a more easily absorbable form.
Try squeezing some fresh lemon juice over your sauteed spinach or adding some orange slices to your lentil salad!
Perfectly Pair Your Proteins
Only some foods are classified as “complete protein foods” meaning they contain all the amino acids your body needs. These complete proteins are often animal-based foods like eggs, meat and dairy.
However, with a little knowledge, you can pair incomplete plant-based proteins together and form a complete protein while still enjoying a plant-based diet.
Classic examples include hearty rice and beans, hummus and whole-grain crackers and wholewheat bread with creamy, natural peanut butter.
Why It’s Better to Cook Your Veggies
Cooked foods can help to make chewing easier and enhance digestion, but did you know that cooking vegetables (especially roasting) can also make more minerals and vitamins available for absorption? (8)
There’s a misconception that raw diets are better for your health and that cooking kills all the nutrients and enzymes needed for your body.
Yes, there are more nutrients in raw veggies and cooking does destroy some enzymes, but cooking also ensures more nutrients are available for your body to use.
For example, there’s a whopping 245mg of calcium per cup of cooked spinach versus 30mg for a cup of raw spinach!
Cooking veggies also allows you to get creative with flavor by adding spices that can make them a whole lot more delicious!
Levels of lycopene, a powerful antioxidant found in red and pink-pigmented foods, are boosted when cooked. Lycopene is also better absorbed when paired with a healthy fat. So try cooking up some tomatoes in some olive oil to really get the most out of your tomatoes!
We know cooking spinach is excellent for increasing your daily intake of calcium, but it’s also better for your iron levels. Spinach contains oxalic acid, which may hinder absorption of iron and calcium, however, cooking or steaming this leafy green may cut oxalic acid by 53%!
Complete mastication (chewing your food thoroughly) is always a good idea and will help address any issues with minor enzyme loss during cooking. However, if you’re still concerned with this then get the best of both worlds and have a meal with some cooked and some raw veggies. This is good for getting your enzymes and nutrients plus adds some variety to your diet.
Learn more about which veggies are best to cook here.
Are Digestive Enzymes Worth It?
The simple answer to this is absolutely!
A healthy gut is essential for digestion and increased absorption of your nutrient-rich foods.
Look into taking a digestive enzyme supplement before meals or try one of our favorite tips to get you started; lemon water!
Drink a cup of warm lemon water every morning to get your digestive juices flowing and to help gently cleanse your liver on a daily basis. Then make sure to drink a cup of warm lemon water 30 minutes before meals to aid digestion and keep your gut calm and happy.
You could also try adding these foods to your diet, all of which are brimming in healthy digestive enzymes!
Also, why not try making your very own whole food supplements! Sounds complicated, but it’s actually easier than you think and quite fun too!
Not only can you save money, but you’ll also know exactly what’s going into your capsules!
I do want to mention that even though whole food supplements are best, as well as getting your nutrients in through nutrition, sometimes certain extracts/supplements do have their place, especially if you’ve had bloodwork done and are lacking in certain areas.
Your doctor or naturopath can help to offer advice on which nutrients your body needs to help get your levels up to par as you start on your wellness journey. As your levels stabilize and you start to feel better, we highly recommend switching to whole food supplements and being mindful of the foods you are filling your body with on a daily basis.
Foods harm and foods heal, it all comes down to the choices you make.
You want your healthy habits to become a lifestyle, a way of life for you. While your food choices and eating habits form the foundation for your healthy lifestyle, there are other factors that also play a major role.
Finding ways to manage stress through healthy outlets is essential for your overall well-being. Being creative and taking care to do those little things every day that make your life worthwhile will help release pent up emotions in a healthy, mindful manner. So sing, dance, paint, create, write and go wild when it comes to expressing your creative self!
Time spent in nature is also essential for your mind, body and spirit, Ground yourself by walking barefoot through the grass, place your hands on a tree and take your meditation practice outdoors to enhance the experience.
Exercise is also extremely important for overall health. It helps to boost your mood, improves your sleep, helps the body better manage stress and, of course, keeps your weight at a healthy level. It’s also fantastic for beating that afternoon slump! If, however, the thought of exercising has you running for the hills (although this is exercise too, haha) then find ways to stay active that you actually enjoy. Take a long walk in nature, try some swift yoga flows and even try a fun dance workout!
Last, but not least, find activities you can take part in that will open you up to meeting people you can connect with. Deep and meaningful social connections make everything a little better, and by meeting people through things you enjoy you’ll be sure to find your true tribe!