Vitamins and minerals

Here an often-stated truism: Today, science has a pretty good picture of how the world works.

Specialization in ever more focused sub-disciplines, the intensive study of ever smaller parts of nature – this patterns creates an illusion that in some fields, we know all that there is to know. From the movements of heavenly bodies to the mapping of the human genome, nature’s laws are deciphered and recorded. Nutritional science is no different, and many people believe that nutritional scientists have discovered everything (or practically everything) there is to know about what and how we should eat, through the study of micronutrients – the vitamins and minerals in our food. Now the only thing we need to know is how to combine the needed ingredients to create a diet that will perfectly fit our physical needs. A glance at the recent history of nutritional science paints a rather different picture: every few years, scientists discover another new and unknown nutritional component. Every such discovery leads inevitably to claims that this is the nutritional component without which the body can’t function, and we therefor need to synthesize it and take it as an artificial supplement. During the 1980’s, for example, no one heard of a coenzyme called Q10, but today anyone dealing with dietary supplements will readily explain that this molecule is essential to the normal functioning of your body, and that therefor, you must take it as a supplement to preserve your health. During the 1990’s much fuss was made about vitamin C, that was advertised as assisting the body in overcoming all sorts of health problems. People were instructed to take artificially synthesized vitamin C in large quantities in the morning and during the day. Inevitably, a few year later research articles linking vitamin C overdose with various illnesses and heart attacks began to surface.

Science is always making new discoveries, and while their importance cannot be doubted, the scientific tendency to focus on narrow subjects (micronutrients in our diet, for example) often obscures the larger picture. The larger picture rises above this or that vitamin and its action, and encompasses the functioning of the whole system, the vitamins and minerals in it and the relations between them. Science as it is currently practiced neglects the holistic nature of the body as a system that requires extensive cooperation between many materials and sub-systems. In simpler terms, if you have a health problem, taking a supplement of coenzyme Q10 won’t solve it, especially not if that’s the one and only change you will make in your life.

My take on this issue is different. I prefer to stay away from research that tests the separate effects of individual micronutrients, or their effects when they are divided into small groups, without taking into account complex environmental factors that influence the absorption and utilization of theses micronutrients in the body. Instead, I take a qualitative approach, putting less stress on the amounts of specific ingredients in the diet and more stress on the overall quality of food and the health and efficiency of the digestive system.


Dietary supplements

Researchers in the fields of nutrition and health are divided with regards to the necessity, effectiveness and potential harm of dietary supplements. Since the discovery of the various constituents in foods and ways to synthesize them, companies and large cooperations producing concentrated dietary supplements sprung up and have financed many studies in this area. Natural nutrition, based on fresh fruit and vegetables and supplemented by whole grains and legumes, does not have a political lobby or investors. Results published in mainstream media usually support taking dietary supplements, although there have been a few publications lately reporting on a number of large long-term studies that demonstrate the harmful effects of some dietary supplements. However, it seems that these publications have had little effect on the growing supplement market.

Many dietitians and nutritional consultants advise their clients to take one sort of pill or another as part of their daily routines. These dietary supplements, holding unnatural concentrations of minerals and/or vitamins, are often thought of as necessary components of a healthy diet. But dietary supplements aren’t built like food. They hold an abnormally large amount of the active ingredients, much larger than the amount in any natural food. Supplement producers figure that the body doesn’t absorb the whole amount of micronutrients present in the pill, because the ability of the body to absorb nutrients varies widely over time and is dependent on many factors, so they concentrate much more than necessary in the supplements. In practice, and despite much research, no one yet knows exactly how much of every substance can be absorbed by different people, and absorption ability seems to constantly change and to be dependent of many factors, many of which are still unknown. We can safely say, however, that because the human body is adapted to absorb the amounts of vitamins and minerals present in everyday food, that the amounts present in dietary supplements are such that the body is not built to deal with.

Health care within the natural medicine paradigm is based on trust in the ability of the body to heal itself. This kind of medicine will not suggest taking a supplement in case of an absorption problem (which usually doesn’t appear as an isolated symptom, because all bodily systems are connected), but will rather attempt to find the source of the absorption problem and create better conditions for the body to absorb the missing substance with greater efficiency. If a deficiency is treated by ingesting large amounts of the missing substance, the body learns to rely on the supplement and extracts even less of this substance from the food, thus magnifying the problem. After a while the body will have difficulties extracting vitamins and minerals from food even if we stop taking the supplement. In contrast, changing your diet to a more fresh and balanced one – although, admittedly, more complicated than adding pills to your daily menu – allows the body to activate its mechanisms in a healthier way.

The differences between quantitative and qualitative viewpoints need to be clearly understood here. Quantitative arguments lead to lacing common foods such as breakfast cereals, dairy products, and snacks with an plethora of vitamins and minerals, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that these foods are now nutritious. What we actually eat, and how we consume it, are of great importance – and there is nothing healthy in grains that have been cooked, ground, compressed, and dried, then smothered in sugar (or honey) and “fortified” with an overdose of six vitamins and iron. At the end of the day, this is simply another kind of candy.

Qualitative thinking leads us to an understanding that mineral or vitamin deficiencies don’t stem only from the amount of available nutrients, but first and foremost from the quality of the food consumed and the health of the digestive system. The quality of food encompasses the composition or structure in which the vitamins are embedded, and a healthy digestive system enables the efficient extraction and absorption of the various vitamins and minerals and proper bodily functioning. The key to our ability to absorb necessary nutrients lies in the quality of our food. The specific amounts at which they are present is a secondary factor, and its significance is evasive.


So what should I know?

As mentioned above, the main cause of the inability of many people today to absorb enough vitamins and minerals is a lack of efficiency of the digestive system. Simply put, our bodies don’t absorb enough vitamins and minerals from our modern diets, or can’t use them effectively, because our nutrition has disrupted the mechanisms of our digestive systems (as well as those of the other bodily systems). Some natural mechanisms being disrupted are the movement patterns of food in the intestines, absorption ability, intestinal flora activity, and the ability of the body to rend the absorbed nutrients available and usable.

Three main elements get in the way of these mechanisms:

* How we eat

* The structure of our diets

* Food additives


How we eat

I’m often contacted by parents who are worried that their toddler “doesn’t eat”. When I try to get a deeper understanding of the situation it often appears that the child does, in fact, eat, just not enough to comply with cultural expectations. So first, I would like to note that human evolution occurred in times of scarcity. Humans evolved trying to survive periods of hunger, and an abundance of food was a very rare event (in fact, it still isn’t common in most of the world). That means that the human body is better equipped to deal with situations of scarcity than of abundance. Today, in certain parts of the world, there’s a new situation in which food is plentiful and readily available. These aren’t ideal conditions for our digestive system. In short, your toddler usually knows what’s good for her.

One of the main problems in our digestive system is the amounts of food we eat and the way we eat it. Already in his time, Maimonides recognized this and stressed the importance of the basic nutritional rule, that one must not reach satiation. He claimed that we should stop eating before the stomach reaches its full capacity, and he thought observing this rule to be more significant to our health than what kind of food we eat. Filling the stomach with too much food of too many sorts hinders the ability of the digestive system to properly preform its functions. The solution is to eat only when you are really hungry (that means waiting awhile after feeling hungry, and eating only if the sensation of hunger persists), and stopping before feeling full. A good exercise is to eat only one sort of food at a time instead of big meals composed of many sorts of food, all of which we want to at least taste.


The structure of our diets

As we all know, besides the amount of food we eat and how we eat it, we should also pay attention to the content of our diets – what do we eat?

A person’s nutrition should be balanced and composed of foods that are suited to the digestive system and its construction. Common contemporary diets are unbalanced, comprising mostly of a few dominant components that place a heavy load on the digestive system and increase the acidity of the bloodstream. High blood acidity creates a deficiency of basic minerals and upsets the balance and the absorption of all vitamins and minerals.

So what do we eat too much of? We consume an excess of animal products (milk, eggs and meat), coffee, chocolate, sugar and grains. Stress also contributes to high blood acidity and hinders digestive functions, among others.

A balanced diet should be composed of large quantities of fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, sprouted legumes, grains in moderation and a small amount of meat and eggs (but no dairy!).


Food additives

There are other ingredients in our food that prevent the absorption of vitamins and minerals, which we usually barely notice. For good absorption to take place, the digestive system needs to work efficiently and the flora in the intestines needs to be healthy and well-balanced. Many food additives damage digestive functions and intestinal flora. Preservatives, for example, which are added to food in order to lengthen its shelf-life by destroying microorganisms, destroy the beneficial microorganisms living in our intestines as well. Later these preservatives are absorbed into the body, damaging bodily functions and necessitating detoxification, placing further burden on the body.



Its time to conclude the obvious – the more suitable our diet is to our digestive system, the less we expose it to aggravating and burdensome foods, the better our absorption of vitamins and minerals will become. The amounts of food we consume, the way we consume it, the quality of our food and the avoidance of harmful substances, all have direct influence on our levels of iron, B12, and the full range of other micronutrients that should be present in our blood.

That being said, even if we observe a healthy and balanced diet, there are additional things we can do to increase the amounts of vitamins and minerals in our food, if this is still necessary. Here are some tips to improve the quality of the food we eat:

* The sooner fruit and vegetables are eaten after being picked, the richer they are in vitamins and minerals. Vegetables lose nutritional value the farther away they are from the picking.

* The more processed the food, the less vitamins and minerals it has.

* Food grown employing ecologically sound methods are also richer in vitamins and minerals.

* It’s a good idea to buy fresh, seasonal produce, to gather wild herbs, and to eat minimally processed food.

* Generally speaking, seasonal foods are richer in micronutrients and allow for a varied diet over the year, they are eaten fresh and ripe and accommodate the body’s changing needs throughout the seasons. Gathering wild herbs is an enjoyable and healthy seasonal activity, most wild herbs have large amounts of vitamins and minerals, and eating them in season improves digestive functions.

Of course, the general outline given here can’t fit everyone. Occasionally the damage caused by years of bad nutrition can’t be immediately addressed. But even that is rarely a sufficient reason to take dietary supplements, except for very extreme and specific cases.