Dietary supplements – be warned
What we often hear, “dietary supplements are a necessity of modern life.”. This is a latent media discourse since the 1930s. The popular stance drilled into us is the following: dietary supplements have become a necessity in modern life due to the prevalence of nutritional deficiencies, increased nutrient demands, and specific nutritional needs.
We are supposed to believe that they offer a convenient and accessible way to bridge dietary gaps, address lifestyle challenges, and support overall health and well-being.
However, recent studies have shown that those dietary supplements are useless at best, and dangerous at worse.
The History of the Discovery of Micro-nutrients
Since the discoveries of the first vitamins, vitamin D by the Dutch scientist Eijkman in 1897, and vitamin B1 by the Polish scientist Funk in 1911, a vague notion has gained more consistency in the minds of Western individuals, particularly those in regions benefiting the most from new discoveries from science.
It became apparent that invisible substances could improve health and even preserve it until a distant future. The very name of these substances, “vitamins,” coined by the Anglo-Saxons, only emerged in 1912, but its etymology itself nurtured the fiction: vita, meaning “life.” In reality, the two vitamins in question were of moderate interest to the average Western citizen.
The first one, vitamin D, improved the condition of children with rickets, a disease that causes bone weakness in children. Since the 18th century, cod liver oil had been administered to sickly children, without yet knowing that it is indeed very rich in vitamin D.
Vitamin B1, on the other hand, was isolated by Funk from rice bran. The researcher had noticed that populations consuming whole rice were free from a deficiency disease called beriberi, impacting the cardio and nervous systems.
However, in the Western world, these two conditions were only found among heavy alcoholics. Alcohol overload impairs some metabolic pathways, leading to deficiencies, even when an adequate amount of vitamins is present.
Therefore, unless one was suffering from rickets or was an alcoholic, there was no particular benefit to expect from these two vitamins. Besides, they had not yet been isolated by the pharmaceutical industry and were not available on the market.
Researchers began searching for other vitamins, and in 1913, American and British teams independently discovered vitamin A, a deficiency that led to vision and mucous membrane disorders. It could be found in a variety of foods such as butter, cheese, beef liver, and fatty fish. The discoveries continued to accumulate.
In 1924, German scientists Stenbock, Hess, and Weinstock revealed that vitamin D synthesis occurred naturally in the skin under the influence of ultraviolet rays. There was no need to give children cod liver oil; all they needed was fresh air.
This coincided with the rise of the naturist and nudist movements. Western populations stocked up on vitamin D, but cod liver oil was still prescribed for children.
Reaching an Industrial Scale
What to know about dietary supplements
Next came vitamin E. Although a deficiency in this vitamin is rare, it became popular in pharmacies once it was isolated and commercialized because it was believed to counter the new domestic monsters of the modern era, the free radicals, and thus fight against aging.
All wonderful claims that were promising money-makers for the industrialists, and made any discussion on the dangers of dietary supplements seem like a backward conversation.
Then came vitamins B2, B3 or PP, B5, B6, C, K1, B9, B12, C2, H, F… And it slowly became apparent that consuming any food without vitamins was practically impossible. Eggs, plums, sardines, and many other foods contain vitamin A. Dried fruits, bananas, potatoes, and many others contain vitamin B.
Almost all foods contain vitamin C, including red meat; from oysters and snails to watercress and tomatoes, especially green vegetables. Vitamin D can be found in eggs and cocoa. Vitamin E is present in butter, bread, and peas. Vitamin K is found in milk, bread, cabbage, and tomatoes. Only water does not contain vitamins.
Unless in extreme cases, it was impossible to suffer from a vitamin deficiency. Again, vitamin deficiencies are mostly associated with an impairment in processing them, rather than a lack of presence in our food. It is also to be noted that the requirements for a certain daily amount of micronutriments depends heavily on the type of food we ingest.
For instance, the requirement for vitamin C drops significantly if we do not ingest high amounts of carbohydrates (ketogenic diet). That is because the cells receptors for glucose and vitamin C are the same: in the absence of heavy loads of sugar, much less vitamin C is needed in order to insure an adequate absorption of it by the cells.
However, the myth of vitamins, marvelous bearers of health, beauty, and eternal youth, sparkled with increasing intensity. Starting in the 1960s, almost every known vitamin could be found on pharmacy shelves, often in the form of combinations or cocktails.
Taking dietary supplements became a sort of mythical norm if you were to keep your health. The most famous of them all, vitamin C, found its champion in Linus Pauling, the Nobel laureate in chemistry in 1954, who presented it as a universal remedy, particularly as a preventive weapon against cancer… which he himself died from.
Vitamin therapy became an independent craze, separate from medical prescription. Without knowing whether they suffered from a genuine deficiency, followers armed with commonly available manuals from bookstores took it upon themselves to establish their own supply of various vitamins.
Enriched milk and bread, infused with vitamins and their new companions, the trace elements, appeared in the market. Certain nutritionists and dieticians, genuine or self-proclaimed, misinformed or hoping to claim the title of health gurus, delivered speeches that can be summarized as follows: “Dietary supplements are a necessity of modern life.”
Facing the First Dietary Supplements Overdoses
Too many dietary supplements?
Then, the first cases of hypervitaminosis emerged. In addition to abnormal nervousness and insomnia, an excess of vitamin C can lead to kidney disorders; an excess of vitamin B can have harmful effects on the heart; an excess of vitamin A cannot only have effects opposite to those expected, such as harming vision and mucous membranes, but it can also cause fetal malformations. In fact, it can be argued that hypervitaminosis A is an overlooked root cause of many chronic issues people are facing today.
Deficiency cases of vitamin B12 are rare, and no one needs to add it to their diet if they consume animal products. Excessive vitamin D can become toxic to the liver and cause an excessive intake of trace elements.
An excess of these trace elements is hardly benign: for instance, excess iron due to “iron supplementation”, as it is known in insider language, leads to cellular aging and can contribute to the development of cardiovascular diseases. Consuming vitamin E, presumed to be beneficial for “cellular youth” – terms nearly devoid of meaning since cells get replaced all the time – increases the risk of prostate cancer.
In the last quarter of the 20th century, the turnover of the dietary supplements industry, including “probiotics” and others, was estimated at 23 billion dollars, which clearly indicates the commercial prosperity of what, in moderate terms, can be called fiction.
It is difficult to compile a comprehensive list of supposedly necessary dietary supplements when, at best, they are useless. Their consumption is driven by mania, and their popularity emerges and fades based on information that some people extract from the scientific press and manipulate to suit their preferences.
One of the more recent fads is green tea, which contains polyphenols presumed to be useful against cancer. However, this anti-cancer property has not been confirmed in humans. Furthermore, a diet based on high doses of green tea can be harmful.
On one hand, the flavonoids it contains inhibit the absorption of dietary iron, leading to deficiencies. On the other hand, it has been observed that in powder or extract form, it is toxic to the liver, which led to the withdrawal of green tea extract from the market in 2003. Additionally, its action can counteract certain medications, such as anticoagulants.
Dietary Supplements lead to imbalances
The consequences of dietary supplements
Today, there are few products in the industrial food market that haven’t had a “value-added” claim of beneficial properties. In 2008, microbiologist Didier Raoult stirred controversy in the yogurt industry by reporting that chicks he had fed with Lactobacillus fermentum, a probiotic bacterium generously added by manufacturers to yogurts (one billion in a certain brand’s pot!), had grown 30% larger than regular poultry. That was a stunning discovery.
The implication was that this brand of yogurt could contribute to obesity. The implicated manufacturer vehemently protested, and a battle of experts ensued through scientific publications. The objectivity of the debate was certainly not guaranteed by the fact that some experts had worked for yogurt producers.
However, the dispute demonstrated the need for greater caution towards the food industry. Not all Lactobacillus strains have the same effect: while Lactobacillus fermentum and Lactobacillus acidophilus may contribute to obesity, it is not the case for Lactobacillus casei.
Using one or the other without a deep understanding of their effects can lead to unexpected repercussions for consumers. One thing is certain: today’s yogurt has little in common with the elixir of youth that Metchnikoff, the father of Probiotics, once touted.
Dietary supplements, eternal elixirs of health and youth, are clearly a deception comparable to the claim of a secret formula that could turn lead into gold. It is an expression of the primary infantilism of the social imagination. And what’s more, this deception risks turning gold into lead. An English saying warns that half-baked knowledge is worse than ignorance. However, the myth’s mystification has not been publicly exposed.
Like a serpent biting its own tail, the idea still circulates that we still need a little bit of vitamins, iron, zinc, etc… And the dangerous belief that consuming too many dietary supplements is not bad because one can never be too healthy.
More seriously, the success of these products, coupled with the illusion that they are “natural” or “organic,” has created a vast parallel industry of fraudulent and dangerous products freely available on the internet. It is indeed the height of irony: tragically falling ill because one believed they were improving their health through dietary supplements.
A Nutrient Dense Diet is all what is Needed
Nutrient density through your food
In order to break this idea of ‘dietary supplements are needed’, we only need to go back to the past, or simply consider how wild animals live. Do we know of any lion in need of supplementation in order to be perfectly healthy?
In fact, the only metabolically sick lions that we know are the lions kept in zoos. Same for the gorillas or any other animal. That means that when an animal eats what it is designed to eat, then the whole question of metabolic health is resolved.
It is high time for Humans to stop looking always for a magic pill that would erase their mistakes. It does not and cannot exist. You cannot outrun a deficient diet by ingesting a few vitamins or minerals.
The exact content of whole foods is far from being known, and the interactions between molecules inside the human body is a whole largely unknown continent. We could even mention the vastly different rates of absorption of micronutrients in various foods: what matters really is what you absorb, not so much what you eat… Eat a natural nutritionally dense animal-based diet, and you will be covered.
Shouldn’t we stop intervening and rather fully trust our body and its processes? Providing enough nutrient-dense food to our body, and staying away from toxicity: those 2 aims are the recipe for optimal natural health.
Temporary supplementation, under supervision and analysis, may be useful, as a temporary crunch, in order to undo deficiencies caused by poor dietary choices. But it’s not optimal and won’t yield the results you want. However a balanced diet will resolve any deficiency rather quickly, such is the power of life in our bodies. It is healing in a balanced way, going too fast may create impediments to the healing processes.
Our body is an auto repair machine that is far more intelligent than we are. Any intervention is just adding noise in the complex matrix of it all. And that is a fact that nobody can deny. Indeed, we are just spectators of the living, that is also a fact we should acknowledge.