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Supplementing a healthy diet

This is an excerpt from Eating on the Run by Evelyn Tribole.

Feeling a little draggy? Need extra energy? Will popping some vitamins perk you up a little? Can supplements be an effective nutritional shortcut to optimal health? If you decide to take a supplement, which is best? When you are on the run, more often than not, normal fatigue (not due to illness) is related to the following:

  • Inadequate sleep
  • Not enough food (or the wrong types)
  • Going long periods without eating
  • Overtraining (exercise)
  • Mental stress

Taking a vitamin supplement will not make up for sleep deprivation, stress, or lack of eating. If it were only that easy, I would be the first in line with my hand out and my mouth wide open. Although some vitamin and mineral deficiencies, such as iron deficiency anemia, can cause fatigue, vitamins themselves do not supply energy. Only carbohydrates, protein, and fat do. Vitamins help convert these energy-supplying nutrients into the biochemical form that the body needs.

If fatigue comes from burning the candle at both ends, your best solution is a combination of sleep, stress management (including setting limits for projects and your schedule), and mindful eating, rather than simply taking a supplement. Think of it this way: when endurance athletes want extra energy for performance, they are advised to load carbohydrates, not vitamins.


An unhealthy diet with a vitamin and mineral supplement still remains an unhealthy diet. A supplement is no excuse for poor eating, but it can easily become a crutch if you are not careful. The core nutritional problem in this country is not one of deficits but rather excesses: too much saturated fat, too much cholesterol, and too much sodium. You have already seen that these particular dietary components have the most damaging effect on your health. A supplement will not counteract a diet that is high fat, high sodium, high cholesterol, or low fiber. Following are some popular misconceptions people have about vitamin and mineral supplements.

A good supplement will meet all your nutritional needs.

No such single supplement exists because everything you need could not fit into a gulp-size pill. In addition, many factors that enhance nutrient absorption are found only in foods.

Supplement companies can put only the known nutrients into their pills.

Some important nutrients and food factors, such as phytochemicals may not have been discovered or identified yet. For example, phytochemicals, compounds that occur naturally in plant foods, have been found to fight cancer, but scientists have barely scratched the surface of identifying them. Broccoli alone, for example, has about 34 phytochemicals. But until they are identified and isolated, phytochemicals cannot be added to supplements. And even if added to a supplement, they might not be effective. For example, a study conducted in the Carotenoid and Health Lab at Tufts University demonstrated that a pill containing six grams of lutein did not have the same effect as a diet containing the same amount of lutein. The lutein-rich spinach diet phase of the study increased blood levels of lutein by more than 40 percent compared to the same amount of lutein in pill form. The researchers concluded that the dietary lutein was much more available to the body than the pill form. It was also significantly less costly to get lutein from the diet.

Supplements labeled “natural” are better than other supplements.

The most natural form in which a vitamin can be found is food! To get a vitamin or mineral into pill form requires many extraction processes and then condensation into a tablet or capsule; this is far from natural. The term natural is not well defined and is often just a marketing gimmick to imply unsubstantiated benefits or safety.

Nutritional supplements are safe.

As toxicologists are fond of saying, it’s the dose that makes the poison or cure. Nutrients in high levels can be dangerous. For example, the mineral iron can be fatal in large doses. That’s why you the see the warning labels on children’s vitamins. Iron overdose is one of the most common causes of poisoning in children.

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