Does it matter where children and adults get nutrients, from food or supplements?
To achieve full growth potential, appropriate body composition, and promotion of health and well-being throughout the life cycle an individual must receive proper nutrition and maintain good dietary behaviors during childhood and adolescence, which will reduce the risk of many chronic diseases as the individual enters adulthood.
Children require sufficient energy, protein, and many other nutrients for proper growth, development, and to maintain body functions.
For example, from 11 through 21 years of age, specifically the adolescent years, the individual experiences profound biological, emotional, social and cognitive changes. This dramatic growth and development phase of life increases the need for energy, protein, and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) as 15-20% of their stature, 50% of their adult body weight, and about 40% of their skeletal mass will be achieved during this period. A lack of proper nutrition will be reflected in slower growth, inadequate bone mass, and low body reserves of micronutrients, among other deficiencies.
So, what is the best way to provide the nutrients that we need throughout childhood and into our adult years for this growth, development, and then maintenance for proper physiological functioning of the body, food or supplementation? Let’s take a look…
Food can be defined as any nutritious substance that we consume that supports growth and life.
When we consume the Standard American Diet (SAD) consisting of energy-dense, nutrient-deficient processed food products designed for longer shelf-life, there is a deficit of proper nutrition.
This eating pattern (SAD) is lacking in nutrients and contains many substances shown to be harmful to the body. For example, rodent studies found monosodium glutamate, or MSG, (a food additive found in many packaged food products and fast-food fare today) able to delay puberty and damage part of the hypothalamus in the brain that regulates hunger and another part of the hypothalamus that produces factors for hormones.
Dr. Clifford Lo, associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, recommends dietary adjustments before supplementing to improve an individual’s nutritional status.
Dr. Lo recommends whole food over supplements because nutrients from food contain other beneficial substances like flavonoids, carotenoids, and antioxidants that work synergistically in the body.
Some whole food substances act as cofactors that increase the absorption and bioavailability of other nutrients. For example, kale is a good source of iron and also contains vitamin C, which increases the absorption of iron. Likewise, salmon is a food source of vitamin D (a fat-soluble vitamin), which is better absorbed because of the salmons natural fat content.
Further, Dr. Lo states that supplementing with individual nutrients can be dangerous, as getting too much of a particular nutrient, such as vitamin A, can lead to toxic levels and harm the body if taken too frequently.
Whole foods also contain substances such as fiber, phytochemicals, and water, all essential to our overall health and wellness.
Fiber found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, promotes a healthy microbiome, adds bulk to keep the colon healthy, and slows the absorption of sugar which helps improve blood sugar levels, among other things.
Phytochemicals fight free radicals (as antioxidants) that would harm body cells, and studies have shown that many phytochemicals can reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases and cancer.
And, fruits and vegetables have a high water content that helps to hydrate the body. For example, apples and pears are about 84% water, while bell peppers are about 92% water.
Supplements are specific substances taken to augment, enhance, or enrich the nutritional status of an individual.
The U.S. Congress in the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (1994) defines supplements this way: “a dietary supplement is a product (other than tobacco) that is intended to supplement the diet; contains one or more dietary ingredients (including vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids, and other substances) or their constituents; is intended to be taken by mouth as a pill, capsule, tablet, or liquid; and is labeled on the front panel as being a dietary supplement”.
In other words, many supplements are extracted compounds that are concentrated and meant to take in therapeutic doses to supply what is lacking in the diet.
The 2018 annual survey conducted by CRN Consumer Survey on Dietary Supplements revealed that 75% of adult Americans take dietary supplements, reporting that 69% of 18-34-year-olds, 77% of 35-54-year-olds, and 78% of 55+-year-olds supplement their diet today.
A Gallup poll found the highest, regular use of vitamin supplementation in three groups; women, elderly, and upper-income Americans.
Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and principal investigator of a large randomized trial known as VITAL (Vitamin D and Omega-3 Trial), said: “Often the enthusiasm for these vitamins and supplements outpaces the evidence. And when the rigorous evidence is available from randomized controlled trials, often the results are at odds with the findings of the observational studies.”
Further, some of the supplements that showed health benefits in observational studies turned out to be ineffective and risky when more rigorous testing was conducted. For example, vitamin E, initially found to protect the heart, was later found to increase the risk of bleeding strokes. And, folic acid thought to prevent heart disease was studied further and later associated with increasing the risk of cancer in high doses.
Dr. Jay Hoecker of the Mayo Clinic advises that food is the best source of nutrients for children and that healthy children, even picky eaters, can get the nutrients they need for proper growth from their meals and snacks.
Dr. Hoecker cautions that supplementing with multivitamins is not without risk as mega doses of vitamins and minerals can be toxic, and some micronutrients can also interact with medications that the child may be taking.
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Community Health reported that more than 35,000 calls were taken at the National Poison Data System (NPDS) for children’s (12 and younger) exposure to pediatric multivitamins.
Further, Dr. Hoecker states that supplementing with a multivitamin may be helpful in a few circumstances, such as when the child displays a failure to thrive (delay in physical and developmental growth), has certain chronic diseases or food allergies, or is on a restrictive diet (vegan).
So, what should our take-away be from this brief study on food nutrients versus supplemental nutrients when it comes to proper nutrition today?
Consuming a varied diet of whole foods is the best way to provide the body with the nutrients required for proper growth, development, and maintenance.
Whole foods contain not only nutrients the body needs, but other substances that support and protect the body.
Supplements can provide concentrated compounds in therapeutic doses to fill nutritional gaps when disease states prevent nutrient uptake, or restrictive diets lack what the body requires.
When supplementing nutrients, an individual should first check with their health professional for deficiency confirmation and obtain dosage information to prevent toxic exposure.
Isaiah 55:2 “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”
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Institute of Medicine (US) and National Research Council (US) Committee on the Framework for Evaluating the Safety of Dietary Supplements. Dietary Supplements: A Framework for Evaluating Safety. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2005. 1,Introduction and Background. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK216048/
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Bronstein, A. C., Spyker, D. A., Cantilena, L. R., et al. (2012). 2011 annual report of the American Association of Poison Control Centers’ National Poison Data System (NPDS): 29th annual report. Clinical Toxicology, 50, 911–1164.