Take your vitamins! It’s what your mom told you and your mom’s mom told her. 1950’s commercials featuring “vitamins for pep” or other similar slogans abound. Such advice is not without merit on the standard American diet, and research shows that vitamin usage has increased exponentially over the past few decades. The following will examine the need for vitamins, the differences between synthetic and natural vitamins, how to get vitamins from whole foods, and when to consider a vitamin supplement.

Raspberries and Blackberries

Widespread Nutrient Deficiency: An Overview of a Serious Problem

The grocery store shelves are lined with products stripped of nutrients. According to this study, sugar, particularly high-fructose corn syrup, isn’t just worthless as far as nutrition goes; but  sugar (and many other processed products) are actually anti-nutrients, robbing the body of vitamins, triggering an inflammatory insulin response, and impairing nutrient absorption.

Weston A. Price, a Canadian dentist, studied and met with multiple groups of people worldwide in his travels and found that it was only after they began to eat a westernized diet that their health rapidly deteriorated. Diseases from tooth decay to macular degeneration to diabetes abounded. Processed foods and the current diet eaten today have undoubtedly led to this increased awareness of a need for more vitamins in the diet.

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Synthetic Vitamins: A False Solution to a Serious Problem

Synthetic vitamin (under this would be many antioxidant supplements) supplements made through artificial methods in a laboratory. While synthetic vitamins may have a small and occasionally significant role in treating or alleviating various symptoms, they are usually inferior to natural vitamins or vitamins from whole foods and whole food sources.

According to this overview from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (study), whole foods supply a synergistic array of vitamins and minerals, instead of one or two synthetic vitamins in isolation.

To put it another way, just one vegetable contains a host of phytochemicals and complimentary enzymes and nutrients that  make the vitamins and minerals more bioavailable than simply popping a pill of that same vitamin (like vitamin E or C, etc.) in isolation.

This study of 22 people showed that natural vitamin E had twice the availability rate of synthetic vitamin E. In another study turkeys given natural vitamin E vs. the synthetic vitamin E group had higher levels of a-tocopherol in the meat.

Another study indicated that excess doses of (synthetic) vitamins may actually be more harmful than helpful in those suffering from cancer and other serious complications.

Conclusion

Synthetic vitamins are inferior to whole food vitamins.

cut up peppers and fruits

Whole Foods: The Best Source of Natural Vitamins

It has been clearly established that the best source of vitamins and minerals is in whole foods because of the synergistic effects of various nutrients eaten together. So what does a whole foods diet look like? The following breaks down which foods to eat for certain nutrients and how to increase the bioavailability of the nutrients in those foods.

Vegetables

Fresh vegetables are packed with natural cancer-fighting chemicals and anti-aging benefits. According to this medical review, fruits and vegetables are an important source of natural, dietary antioxidants. In proper amounts, antioxidants play an important role in protecting against cancer, diabetes, and atherosclerosis. Another study observed that populations with a high consumption of leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables had incredibly lower rates of cancer and diabetes compared to the standard population.

The following classes of vegetables will ensure that the plant-based part of your diet is well-rounded and nutritious.

1. Kale (and Other Leafy Greens)

One cup of packed raw kale delivers over 600% percent of the daily value of Vitamin K (important for blood clotting), 200% daily value of Vitamin A, and hefty doses of vitamins C and B. Kale also contains lutein and zeaxanthin, carotenoids which may help protect against macular degeneration.

How to use it: For those with weaker digestive systems, kale may be better blended into a smoothie or cooked into a soup. Hearty salad lovers will want to whip up a kale salad massaged with homemade tahini dressing and pumpkin seeds.

Other leafy green alternatives: If you really hate the taste of kale, spinach, Swiss chard, and mustard greens pack a similar nutritional punch with a slightly more mild taste.

2. Sea Vegetables

Sea vegetables are sadly an often-neglected vegetable, supplying a host of nourishing nutrients and minerals. The star nutrient among almost all sea vegetables is the mineral iodine. Iodine is important for proper thyroid function, hormone signaling, energy production and repair. Kelp ranks as the most iodine-rich vegetable with 2523 mcg/gram (over 1500% of the daily value recommended by the USDA). Arame, nori, wakame, kombu, and dulse also pack a decent dose of iodine per gram, as well as other nutrients and minerals in various amounts, including riboflavin, iron, thiamin, manganese, and copper.

How to use them: Small amounts of arame and wakame mixed into lettuce or other leafy green salads are a delicious, savory-salty addition. A strip of kombu added to soups or beans adds a certain umami and may increase the digestibility of the food. Dulse flakes or tiny amounts of kelp powder are tasty sprinkled on cooked rice or eggs.

A Word of Caution: Those with thyroid disorders should consult with their doctor or healthcare provider before supplementing with iodine or consuming iodine-rich seaweed.

3. Root Vegetables

Beets, sweet potatoes, parsnips, potatoes, rutabagas, and winter squashes such as pumpkin and butternuts squash all fall under this category.Beets, sweet potatoes, and winter squashes are loaded with potassium, an important mineral that plays a role in the muscular system (deficiency of it can result in painful leg cramps), digestive system, and cardiovascular system. One study showed that beets helped to regulate blood pressure in overweight adults.

Beets may also help to improve athletic performance because of their natural nitrate content.

It is important to note that the vegetable nitrates in beets are completely different from the harmful, artificial nitrates in processed meats.

How to use them: Make beet chips. Slice the beets thinly using a very sharp knife or slicing tool (more effective and less dangerous). Toss with sea salt and coconut oil and bake in the oven till crispy. Sweet potatoes can be stuffed with a variety of healthy fillings once baked, or simply eaten topped with grass-fed butter or coconut oil to increase nutrient absorption. All the root veggies are delicious in nourishing wintery or fall stews.

4. Cruciferous Veggies

Cruciferous vegetables are among the most widely studied vegetables in terms of their disease-preventing benefits. In this study, cruciferous vegetables over all other types of vegetables were linked to a decreased rate of atherosclerosis in women.

One of the most powerful chemical components of cruciferous vegetables, sulforphane, is making headlines. One medical review noted that sulforphane appears to target cancer cells and modulate their pathways.

Broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, arugula, radishes, and Brussels sprouts are the most common vegetables in the cruciferous category. Broccoli sprouts in particular are a very concentrated source of sulforphane. When it comes vitamins, cruciferous are rich in Vitamins C, E, K, and folate.

How to use them: Broccoli, cauliflower, and kohlrabi can be made into delicious, creamy soups or pre-cooked and added to quiches, frittatas, and salads. Radishes and arugula make spicy, invigorating additions to a salad mix.

Animal Foods: Nutrient-Dense Superfoods

Meat: Liver from grass-fed or pasture-raise beef and chicken is one of the most nutrient dense foods on the planet, a multivitamin in food form. Just a small 1 ounce serving delivers more than the daily value of Vitamin A, B12, B2, and copper, supplying as well hefty doses of iron and choline. Grass-fed lamb meat is high in zinc, important for mental health, memory, and regulating the immune and digestive systems. Grass-fed beef is rich in omega-3’s and pastured chicken is a good source of B vitamins.

Fish: Wild-caught salmon in particular is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. In several studies, omega-3’s were shown to help endothelial (artery) function in participants.

Fats: Butter and grass-fed ghee are rich in Vitamins A, D, and K. One study showed that
ghee, long beloved in aryuvedic medicine for its anti-inflammatory benefits, is
associated with lower coronary heart disease.

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Should You Take Vitamins?

Since there are so many vitamins and minerals and everything the body needs available in animal foods and plant foods, are vitamins even necessary? For many individuals, yes, vitamins may be very necessary.

Those with impaired digestive systems may be eaten a diet of whole foods but unable to assimilate many of the nutrients. You are more than what you eat, you are what you digest. Those who are pregnant or breastfeeding in particular will want to take a high-quality prenatal as an “insurance policy” of sorts to an already nutrient-dense diet.

The key is to choose vitamins made from whole foods, not synthetic vitamin supplements. Most vitamins on the supermarket shelves are made synthetically. If in doubt, you can always call the company and ask about sourcing and processing methods.

Conclusion

Synthetic vitamins, while they may be better nothing when it comes to supplementing deficiencies, are inferior to whole foods. Synthetic vitamins may even be harmful for some individuals as they are largely unregulated. Whole foods are a nutrient-dense source and should form the foundation of vitamin consumption. When necessary or as an insurance policy, a whole foods based supplement may be a necessary and vital addition to an already nutrient-dense diet.