Food Versus Supplement

Monday, October 8th, 2018

Taking the right supplements at the right doses and in the right forms are important to ensure that these health supplements do indeed supplement health and not cause harm to the body.  By Dr Vincent Candrawinata, Conjoint Fellow of The University of Newcastle, Australia, and Founder of Renovatio Bioscience.


The fresh food which makes up a healthy diet contains a variety of nutrients for good health—some of them are essential for the human body to function and maintain homeostasis.


In general, there are two types of nutrients, macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients include carbohydrates, protein and fat, while micronutrients range from vitamin A, Bs, C, D, E to minerals such as magnesium, iron, calcium as well as essential fatty acids. In the past, diet was the primary source of these nutrients. Perhaps this was the reason that despite different cultures having different types of food, one thing they all have in common is each of this diet consists of wide variety of foods to ensure that the body receives enough nutrients it requires.

It was not until 1912, when Polish-born biochemist Casimir Funk came across ‘mysterious’ compounds he named vital amines, which then shortened to vitamins that the significant health effects of micronutrients began to be understood and studied further.

Vitamin C—although at the time of the discovery was not known by this name—literally helped the British Navy to win the war. During the Napoleonic wars, all British sailors were issued with lemon juice to prevent scurvy. The inclusion of lemon juice in their diet allowed British ships to remain at sea for longer periods. This effect was remarkable because for most of the 18th century, ships could only stay at sea for relatively short periods (six to eight weeks), without the sailors developing scurvy.

As technology in the field of health and nutrition advances, the source of many of these nutrients are no longer limited to foods but are also available in the convenient form of pills, powders and liquids.


Different Types Of Health Supplements

There are four types of health supplements commonly known by the general public, namely:


Vitamins and minerals
This category includes multivitamin and single vitamin supplements such as Niacin, vitamin C or folic acid and iron.



Extracts of herbs mostly originate from traditional medicine in both Eastern and Western cultures. Some of these herbs have been used extensively throughout generations as both health foods as well as medicine. Gingko biloba, echinacea, St John’s Worts are amongst the most popular and extensively researched herbs for their medicinal properties.


Nutritional oils

Nutritional oils are full of fatty acids which are the building blocks of our cells—some of these are known as essential oils. The term ‘essential’ means that our body cannot make these fatty acids and therefore must source it from our intake, through diet or supplementation. Omega 3, 6, 9 or Fish Oil, Evening Primrose Oil and Flax Seed Oil are in this category.



In recent years, antioxidants were not widely known, even among people who routinely purchased and used health supplements. Even now, antioxidants are still poorly and mistakenly understood.

In brief, antioxidants are free radical ‘scavengers’ which neutralise free radicals present in our body by donating their electrons to stabilise free radical molecules to stop them stealing electrons from our cells.


Bridging The Nutritional Gap

The consensus among health and nutrition experts is that the first approach towards fulfilling nutritional requirements is through a healthy diet. However, with the fast-paced lifestyle and the abundance of processed foods, relying solely on diet to fulfil nutritional needs may not be attainable for some people.

The typical modern diet mainly consists of processed foods, refined grains, refined sugars and a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables, which correlates with a substantial increase in the numbers of degenerative diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases, inflammatory conditions and cancers in recent years.

Communities of medical and health experts are in agreement that malnutrition and nutrition deficiencies are risk factors in a number of noncommunicable and degenerative diseases including diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer.

Beside diet, there are genetic dispositions which cause the body to lack certain nutrients, which put people with these conditions at a higher risk to suffer from nutrient deficiency.

Different stages of life are also a determining factor. Children with poor appetite or strong dislikes towards certain foods may need supplementations such as DHA. Women who are pregnant need different level of nutrients, namely folate, iron and calcium. Older people are also more likely to have difficulties fulfilling their nutritional needs because one of the consequences of aging is that the body’s ability to process food and absorb nutrients decreases.

Lifestyle is another factor which affects nutritional requirements. People with high stress jobs tend to suffer from health problems related to nutrient deficiency due to poor diet. Smokers are more at risk of cellular damages caused by higher exposure to free radicals and chemicals.

This nutritional gap can be mitigated with nutritional intervention, such as taking health supplements.


Supplementing Health The Right Way

The rising popularity of health supplements is not without criticisms.

One of the most misunderstood health supplements is antioxidants. This health supplement category is a relatively new concept and particularly intriguing because it is touted to address the biggest health worry of the century: ageing.

Phenolic antioxidants are among the compounds being studied intensively because of their role in preventing damages caused by free radicals, which is one of the leading cause of ageing. Phenolic antioxidants have advantages over other antioxidant types and they potentially significantly increase benefits for human health.

The most fundamental element of health supplements is bioavailability, because unless it is biologically available to the human system, supplements tend to do more harm than good.

Health supplements such as vitamin B complex and vitamin C are water soluble which are relatively easier for the body to get rid of. Those who take these kinds of supplements may be familiar with the colour change in their urine after taking the supplements. This is an indication of the inability of the body to absorb and utilise these compounds.

This phenomenon has prompted those who are against taking health supplements into making an argument that taking supplements are basically making an expensive urine, since majority—if not all—of the compounds are being flushed out of the body.

Some health experts even argue that over a long period of time, these non-absorbable compounds may potentially cause damage to organs such as the liver and kidney, an argument based on the fact that these organs are responsible for processing these compounds before they are secreted from the body.

A trial, which started in 1994, found that daily doses of the antioxidant beta-carotene significantly elevated the risk of lung cancer in male smokers by 18 per cent. In a 2011 trial involving more than 35,500 men over 50 found that large doses of vitamin E increased the risk of prostate cancer by 17 percent.

In the era where there is a tendency to think that more is better, the effort to bridge nutritional gap by taking supplements could be dangerous, because too much could cause harm.

Vitamin A, when taken in large doses or too frequently, may cause toxicity. Saturating the body with a cocktail of non-absorbable antioxidants could also negatively impact the body’s indigenous antioxidant system, which could significantly increase the risk of exposure towards free radical damage through a reaction known as pro-oxidation.

Pro-oxidation happens because when an antioxidant molecule gives up its electron to neutralise a free radical molecule; it then becomes a free radical itself. Therefore, although it neutralises one free radical molecule, it is now starting an oxidation chain reaction of its own.

Taking the right supplements at the right doses and in the right forms are important to ensure that these health supplements do indeed supplement health and not cause harm to the body.


The Best Of Both Worlds

The development of technology in health and nutrition increases human life expectancy and quality. Numerous health issues caused by nutrient deficiency can now be resolved through supplementations or food enrichment and fortification.

Access to these convenient supplements certainly helps to improve health and potentially lower the risks of developing degenerative diseases. However, health supplements should not be treated as the silver bullet to good health or a quick lazy fix to an unhealthy lifestyle. As the name suggests, health supplements should only be supplementary to a healthy balanced diet.

As technology in the field of health and nutrition advances, the source of many nutrients are no longer limited to foods but are also available in the convenient form of pills, powders and liquids.


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