To Supplement or Not to Supplement?
Priyanka Elhence looks at the relationship between eating healthy and popping pills.
Astrong immune system depends on a healthy diet, and the natural nutrients and fibre obtained from whole foods to provide the body with a wide range of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.
But what about all the vitamins and supplements available for better health? Unfortunately, the popular belief that popping pills helps maintain good health is not entirely correct. There are times when taking a supplement can be very useful – helping with food allergies and intolerance, during pregnancy or meeting nutritional requirements on a restrictive diet, for instance. But for healthy adults, the usual trifecta of eating a nutritious diet, exercising and getting enough sleep are the best ways for optimum immunity.
Pooja Vig, Functional Medicine Nutritionist and Clinic Director & Co-founder, The Nutrition Clinic, says that getting enough sleep and following the circadian rhythm of sleeping before 11pm every night is just as important for the body to work at its optimal healthy state. The usual wired and tired, stress+sleep cycle means not sleeping enough and fighting fatigue all day, leading to a possible high-caffeine, high-sugar diet, with low levels of magnesium (which helps with muscle and nerve function, regulating blood pressure, and supporting the immune system).
Supplements don’t cure or prevent disease; rather, as the name suggests, they supplement nutritional value and boost immunity in addition to healthy eating habits. It would be more accurate to say that certified multivitamins help cover nutrition shortfalls, as long as they are medically prescribed. Inaccurate labelling is common in the supplement industry, especially when it comes to fish oils, probiotics, protein supplements and herbal supplements. In a 2019 study, researchers from the University of Auckland’s Liggins Institute reported that many fish oil supplements sold in New Zealand and Australia contained less than two-thirds of the Omega-3 fatty acids listed on the labels.
“Supplements don’t cure or prevent disease; rather, as the name suggests, they supplement nutritional value and boost immunity in addition to healthy eating habits.”
According to a 2016 report in the Health Supplements Industry Association of Singapore (HSIAS), Daniel Quek, president HSAIS, said that Singaporeans spent approximately $594 million on supplements annually, with multivitamins, calcium and Vitamin C pills bringing in the highest sales. He added that if used appropriately, supplements could be a low-cost way to maintain health and reduce risks of several health conditions.
Jeremy Mccarthy, Mandarin Oriental’s Group Director of Spa & Wellness, recently said, “Wellness has been a consumer macro trend for some time, impacting all industries prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but recent events have brought health awareness to the forefront of human consciousness. People are becoming more motivated than ever before to explore new lifestyle behaviours for better immunity, stronger bodies and longevity.”
Indeed, immunity has become the new buzzword, as we look more seriously at our dietary lifestyle in search of superfoods, supplements and nutrients for a stronger immune system. When asked what difference vitamins and supplements made in boosting immunity, Bibi Chia, principal dietitian, Raffles Medical Group, says, “Omega 3 makes a difference, and it is also an essential fatty acid that is obtained through the diet. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the most common omega-3 fatty acid in our diets, and good sources are flaxseed and walnuts. However our body's ability to transform it into EPA and DHA (the omega-3 fatty acids that help reduce inflammation and risk of heart disease) is limited. I recommend eating fatty fish such as salmon and anchovies three times a week, or fortified eggs if your diet permits. The Linus Pauling Institute in Oregon also recommends a higher intake of vitamins C and D for boosting respiratory health, up to 400mg of Vitamin C and 2000iu of Vitamin D, so supplements make sense here for such dosage.”
She adds, “It can be challenging to immediately switch to a diet which might have all the micronutrients needed to ensure proper functioning of our immune system, hence supplements can help sometimes. However, an 'immunity boosting' diet is simply a healthy balanced diet with a variety of nutritious foods from different food groups to ensure an adequate intake of all essential nutrients. Eating healthy is a good practice, regardless of COVID-19. We should still treat healthful foods as sustenance as they contribute to a larger part of our intake and hence larger exposure to our bodies. Having supplements with an unhealthy diet won’t help mitigate all the negative overall impact, but having a good diet with the right supplements and functional foods, definitely gives you a good start.”
“I recommend eating fatty fish such as salmon and anchovies three times a week, or fortified eggs if your diet permits. The Linus Pauling Institute in Oregon also recommends a higher intake of vitamins C and D for boosting respiratory health, up to 400mg of Vitamin C and 2000iu of Vitamin D...”
Echoing the same sentiments, Vig says, “Our immune system relies on nutrient-dense whole foods to function well, and we recommend plants as the foundation of each meal. Specific nutrients to help boost immunity are vitamins C and D, zinc and selenium. Add to that protein, and healthy fats such as nuts, seeds and olive oil. The use of herbs and spices, such as turmeric and oregano, are also encouraged, not just for flavour but also because of their immune-system-boosting properties. What we want off the plate are sugary foods which can depress the immune system for hours after being ingested.”
Vig also shines the spotlight on gut health as 75 percent of the immune system is in our gut, placing the gut at the core of body health. “The gut microbiome - the community of microbes that live in the gut - play a critical role in regulating our immune responses. Food sensitivities, inadequate levels of pre- and pro-biotics in the diet, and toxic overload (antibiotics, sugar, the pill, pesticides and pain killers) can all affect gut health. Stress also weakens the immune system, allowing infections and inflammation in the gut. Diet is key for treating the digestive system by restoring gut health and repopulating beneficial bacteria. In a poor diet, one of the most common foods that cause damage to the intestinal lining are gluten and unsprouted grains, as the latter contain phytates and lectins prohibit absorption of nutrients, eventually leading to food sensitivities and inflammation.”
“The World Health Organisation recommends a daily intake of 400g of fruit and vegetables, but people usually underestimate the power of plants being providers of micronutrients in our diet,” shares Chia. “For instance, sweet potatoes are a good source of vitamin A; red peppers are good for vitamin C; almonds for vitamin E; and lentils are a good source of folate. Other under-rated healthy foods are by-products that we discard or consider undesirable. For example, wheat germ is nutritionally packed but it is often milled away to create white flour for baking. Likewise for forgotten vegetables. Seaweeds and even Mandarin peels have bioactives - we just need to know how to use them.”