The Real Problem With 'Natural' Supplementation

An apple is good for you. Apples have vitamin C. Therefore, vitamin C is good for you. This is the common thought pattern that has led to one of the largest industries in the world today…supplements. In 2008, the sale of supplements worldwide totaled 187 billion dollars. Over 65% of American adults take dietary supplements while 52% claim to be everyday users. Take vitamin E to prevent cardiovascular disease, an omega-3 pill to treat rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes, or some beta-carotene to help fight lung cancer is what they tell you.

With billions spent on supplements worldwide and the number of chronic diseases still on the rise, we have to ask ourselves, is this approach working? Is micromanaging symptoms with ‘natural’ supplements rather than 'pharmaceutical' that much more effective?

In today's article, we've discussed five reasons why that might not be the case

1. The whole is greater than its parts. Never has this been as true as with the foods we eat and their micronutrient content. Let’s use the apple example. Apples do have vitamin C, but they have a whole host of other nutrients that impact its potency and effect in the body. Vitamin K, potassium, dietary fiber and a host of antioxidants that most people have never heard of (quercetin, catechin, phlorizin to name a few) are just a few of the nutrients present in apples and have been proven to have a major effect on how your body absorbs the vitamin C from that apple. It’s these supporting characters that play the most important role in how nutrients are used.

2. Studies attributing too much to significance to isolated biomarkers rather than real world outcomes. For example, many studies have shown that omega-3 supplements improved clinical biomarkers of heart disease such as blood triglycerides, HDL’s, and glucose tolerance. However, a total of 89 studies have concluded that “omega-3 fats (from supplements) do not have a clear effect, on mortality, combined cardiovascular events or cancer”. The amount blood triglycerides running through your body is rather trivial when compared to the number of heart attacks you have?

3. Too much of a certain nutrient can actually be harmful.  When we use actual health issues as our outcome markers (rather than these blood biomarkers) we start to see a different picture. One 200,000 participant, 15 year study showed that increased consumption of omega-3’s (from fish and supplements) was associated with a INCREASED risk of Type 2 diabetes. Another review of 72 randomized controlled trials found that supplementing with vitamin E was associated with greater overall mortality.

4. Supplementation too easily becomes ‘Substitution.’ Our society is too often looking for an ‘easy way out’. Getting nutrients in pill form leads many to believe that they are ‘off the hook’ when it comes to eating right. Why eat fruits and vegetables if you can get all the same benefits in a pill?

5. Supplements have turned healthy eating into a game of nutrient micromanagement. Instead of asking ourselves what foods we should be eating to support optimum health we’re asking ‘how much vitamin C do I need?’ The focus needs to be on the food we eat, not the number of grams of vitamin C needed each day.

And while all these issues pose relatively minor problems, the real issue that has arrived from supplementation is the over-reliance that has formed as a result. In a healthcare world where people are looking for answers to complex problems, when they told the answer lies in a 'natural pill' they'll likely stop looking for answers that we know work (whole food nutrition and movement).  The reliance on 'natural pills' hinders individuals participation in their own health. It creates an illusion of health that leads to complacency and stops people from taking real actions to improve their health.



Supplements can be useful in a handful of cases. If you truly have a nutrient deficiency (confirmed by blood tests) supplements are a great way to get your levels up to recommended ranges. If you have performance goals there are plenty of studies to suggest that some performance supplements can help get you where you want to be. 



J. Boyer and R.H. Liu, “Review: Apple Phytochemicals and Their Health Effects” Nutrition Journal 3, no. 5 (2004).

L. Hooper et al., “Risks and Benefits of Omega 3 Fats for Mortality, Cardiovascular Disease and Cancer: Systematic Review,” BMJ 332, no 7544 (2006) 752-60.

G. Bjelakovic, D. Nikolova, L.L. Gluud, RG et al, “Antioxidant Supplements for prevention of mortality in Healthy Participants and Patients with Various Diseases,” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 3 (March 14, 2012): CD007176. DOI 10.

Cambell, T. “Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition.” BenBella Books. 2013