People write a lot about nutrition, eat dietary supplements based on ads and recommendations and constantly seek information about different diets, dietary supplements and pills. Every one of us is also – at least on some level – aware of the official dietary recommendations. The strengths and also the weaknesses of these recommendations for the general public are their simplicity and generality. The general recommendations on nutritional intake often reflect the reference values within which the risk of being exposed to specific illnesses reduces. However, these general average values don’t necessarily have anything to do with what is optimal for an individual. That is why the use of dietary supplements should always be based on the individual need. This can be discovered by measuring the nutrient levels in the body.
The official dietary recommendations and the individual need of micronutrients
The discussion about micronutrients began in the 1930s as research on the micronutrients required by plants also began. The recommended nutritional intake of micronutrients and their significance on health were began to be studied in the 1940s. According to extensive research, micronutrient deficiencies were very common in the industrialized countries. The problem began to be solved with cod liver oil and by modifying daily foodstuff, such as adding iodine to salt.
The recommendations on nutritional intake are primarily based on research about the existence of deficiency diseases and certain illnesses in relation to nutrition concerning the whole population. However, these recommendations are not the same as the optimal level of intake for an individual which can vary significantly due to genetic factors. Individual mutations constantly occur in each human being. These mutations can cause individual differences in the DNA chains.
All of this affects how much a person needs certain micronutrients and vitamins from nutrition. In many cases mutations directly affect the coenzyme activity of vitamins and micronutrients (e.g. zinc, vitamin B6 and choline) and the need of these nutrients in the body. That is why the first step when building a proper diet or a dietary supplement program is to find out the individual needs concerning nutrition.
Nutrient intake is significantly dependent on how well they are absorbed into the body. This can not be taken into consideration in the official dietary recommendations. If the processes related to digestion are not functioning properly, the nutrients won’t absorb in the way they are expected to. That is why optimizing the nutrient intake should also begin from improving digestion.
The professor of biochemistry and molecular biology Bruce Ames has researched cancer and aging for several decades. According to the triage theory of micronutrients and aging developed by Ames, when in a state of deficiency the body uses the nutrient reserves of internal organs to maintain health. For example, in a state of iron deficiency the body uses the iron stored in the liver to sustain normal body functions. A long-term micronutrient and vitamin deficiency weakens the body and causes damages in the DNA and the mitochondria which can lead to cancer and the acceleration of aging. Ames suggests that in order to live as long as possible, the optimal need of micronutrients should be fulfilled throughout your life.
A healthy person’s need of vitamins is relatively small. However, stress, chronic inflammation, long-term illnesses, many medications, smoking, pregnancy and breastfeeding, heavy physical work and various environmental factors (toxins, chemicals, drugs etc) all increase the need. Different genetic errors or mutations can prevent the absorption of vitamins and their normal utilization in the body. According to research, extreme diets that are common these days can also lead to micronutrient deficiencies.
Based on all this information it is good to evaluate whether dietary supplements could be useful especially regarding the nutrients which are difficult to get sufficiently from nutrition and/or from the environment (such as vitamin D from the sun or magnesium from food) or which the body uses extensively (e.g. magnesium, vitamin C, selenium, zinc). By regularly measuring the nutrient levels in the body, it is possible to know exactly which dietary supplements you need and how much.
Is the nutrient density of food the same what it was 50 years ago?
The amount of vitamins in fruits, vegetables and the animal kingdom has significantly reduced within the past couple of decades due to intensive farming (artificial fertilizers and pesticides), plant breeding and soil impoverishment. According to a research published in 2004, the density of 43 nutrients has significantly decreased during five decades (1950–1999). Similar results have been acquired around the world.
For example, in Great Britain the average level of calcium in vegetables was reduced by 19 %, iron by 22 % and potassium by 14 % between 1930-1980. The researchers in the Kushi Institute noticed that between 1975-1997 the potassium levels of 12 different vegetables were reduced by 27 %, iron levels by 37 %, vitamin A levels by 21 % and vitamin C levels by 30 %.
The rule of thumb is that in the more original form the food is, the more likely it has qualities which enhance health. Meta analyses have discovered that organically produced food contains significantly more antioxidants and less heavy metals and pesticides than non-organically produced food.
Vitamins have their own role in the body which no other vitamin, nutrient or other chemical compound can replace. Vitamins are a part of different enzyme systems, coenzymes or their source materials. They extensively participate in the different phases of metabolism and the biochemical functions of cells. These include for example energy production, the functioning of the immune system, the prevention and the repairing of the DNA and RNA damage, cell division, detoxification and the repairing of nerve cell damage. The sufficient intake of the fat-soluble vitamins can prevent many types of cancer. Vitamins interact with each other and different micronutrients.
What kinds of dietary supplements should I use?
If you use or think of using dietary supplements, the first thing is to invest in quality. This means that the dietary supplement should be as pure as possible and that it shouldn’t contain harmful ingredients, that the ingredient is in a bioactive form which absorbs well and that the ingredient has been proven efficient in clinical trials. Another important factor is that the product doesn’t contain preservatives or fillers. When it comes to supplements it is good to follow the same principles as with food: would you rather eat natural food which is free from preservatives or processed prepared food which contains 30 different ingredients? There are many kinds of supplements available on the market which varying quality, so it is good to be selective when choosing the right one.
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