Not all bread is bad for you

At a health launch last week, the host giddily announced that the muffins on the table were gluten, dairy and sugar-free, AKA “healthy”, AKA “guilt-free”.

Apart from the inherent problem of labelling food guilt-y or guilt-free, people have come to incorrectly associate gluten-free with healthy.

“It makes you fat,” cries one woman on Jimmy Kimmel’s viral vox-pop, What is gluten?, when asked why she avoids it. (It’s protein found in wheat, rye and barley that gives bread its delectable chewiness, in case you wondered.)

She must have been getting her nutritional advice from Miley Cyrus because, as Jeff Wilser explains in his new book The Good News About What’s Bad For You, the “misguided” gluten-free fad can actually make you gain weight.

Hold on to your rice-paper roll because it won’t necessarily make you healthier either.

“Many people eventually gain weight on a gluten-free diet,” Dr Shelly Case, author of The Gluten-free Diet: The Definitive Resource Guide, tells Wilser. She says gluten-free foods have encountered a similar problem to fat-free foods: whatever has been removed must somehow be replaced.

Many manufacturers swap the gluten for sugar or fat to add flavour and texture.

“A gluten-free bread is much more condensed and compact and often they’re not as enriched with irons and vitamins,” Case says. “Gluten-free does not necessarily mean healthier.”

Author and food activist Michael Pollan agrees, arguing that bread-denial is bad.

“Gluten is bad for some people, but I think a much smaller number than we think,” he says in a new Netflix series Cooked.

“There are people who have a genuine gluten intolerance, and then I think [there are] a lot of people who think they do.”

In Australia, about 1 to 2 per cent suffer coeliac disease (an auto-immune condition that results in inflammation of the small intestine when any gluten is ingested), but about 10 per cent – or two million – of Australians are coeliac-free actively avoid gluten.

Pollan suggests any problems coeliac-free people think they may have as a result of gluten can be solved by sticking to a certain type: fermented gluten.

“If they ate bread that’s undergone a long sourdough fermentation, they wouldn’t have any problems,” he says.

Why? There is an ongoing debate about whether it is gluten or some other component of wheat that triggers the reported symptoms in the coeliac-free.

“Fructans, for example, are short-chain carbohydrates that are found in wheat-based products, as well as other foods,” says the CSIRO.

“For a proportion of the general population, fructans, along with other short-chain carbohydrates (collectively called FODMAPS), can trigger symptoms like bloating, wind or cramps by holding water in the gut or through the rapid production of gas by intestinal bacteria.”

Fructans are broken down by the gut-healthy bacteria lactobacillus that grows during the sourdough fermentation process.

“[The] tradition of fermenting flour with sourdough breaks down the peptides in gluten that give people trouble,” Pollan says, noting that commercial brands, with their sped-up processes and artificial additives, don’t make bread like we used to.

Consider that, for hundreds of years, making bread was a slow and simple process of leaving the dough of water and whole wheat flour to sit and ferment. The baker then kneaded the dough to combine the proteins created through fermentation to form gluten.

Consider, on the other hand, the accelerated, adulterated version of a modern bread maker. Tip Top’s Sourdough rolls, for example, contain the wheat flour and water, sure. They then completely bypass the natural sourdough process by adding baker’s yeast, dried rye sourdough, gluten, iodised salt, soy flour, acidity regulator (262) and vitamins (thiamin, folate).

Additionally, the mechanisation of bread also allows manufacturers to discard easily the nutrient and fibre-dense parts of the wheat kernel – the germ and the bran – to create white flour.

Is it any surprise that people’s guts play up when this is the version of bread we feed our poor bellies?

“Anecdotally, I’ve heard from lots of people that, when they eat properly fermented bread, they can tolerate it,” Pollan says.

Getting properly fermented bread means buying sourdough from a proper baker, not from a big bread company that is trying to cut corners.

It means returning to a more simple way of eating, bypassing the big food corporations that are unlikely to have our best health interests at heart and who are happy to exploit our food fears and fads.

And it means, for the coeliac-free, which is most of us, getting to have our bread and eat it, too.

Natural Energy Drinks

Picture of Homemade Energy Drink

I started out with the intention of coming up with a recipe for a homemade version of the store bought energy drinks, but after doing some research and discovering how unhealthy they are for you, I decided instead to try and design a less sugar/caffeine fueled way to help myself through the workday afternoon sleepy slump.

What I landed on was a system of three drinks and some energy boosting ideas that are going a long way to helping me keep my energy up all day long! Here’s the good on the drinks:

The Fire Hydrant (left) – 3-4 8oz glasses throughout the day

filtered water
1 slice lemon
1 pinch cayenne pepper

Other than getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night, staying hydrated is the most important thing you can do to help keep your body functioning at optimum levels. So this drink is just water with a squeezed lemon slice and a pinch of cayenne pepper. The lemon not only tastes good, but is also super alkaline* which helps your body maintain a healthy pH level. The cayenne pepper helps raise energy levels naturally and provides protection for your heart by helping to maintain proper cardiovascular movement throughout the body. Combining this with 4-5 glasses of regular water will bring you up to your recommended 8 glasses of water per day!

*For an explanation of lemons’ miraculous transition from acidic outside of the body, to alkaline once ingested, visit this link:

The Quick Fix (center) – as needed, during the day
(I don’t recommend drinking it at night as it might keep you up)

hot water
1 1/2 – 2 tsp honey (to taste)
1 inch of fresh ginger root
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp tumeric

Cut off two thin slices of ginger and place in your cup or mug.
Use a garlic press to juice the remaining ginger into your mug.
Add both spices and fill your mug with hot water and stir.

This is the closest thing I found to a non-caffeine/refined sugar pick me up! And I find it pretty delicious. Ginger speeds up metabolism and increases circulation. It also aids in the digestive process which can help stave off the post lunch coma that contributes to the afternoon slump. Turmeric, a cousin of ginger, also helps speed things up in the body, including energy levels! And Cardamom has long been valued medicinally for its ability to increase circulation and improve energy. Honey is mother nature’s equivalent of an energy shot and is one of the best kinds of sugars for your body.

The Heavy Lifter (right) – 1 glass in the morning

1 ripe banana
1/4 cup raw almonds or 2 tbsp almond butter
1 scoop of high quality whey protein powder (low sugar content)
2 washed kale leaves
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1 tbsp ground flax seeds
1 cup milk of choice (I used unsweetened almond milk)

According to Dr. Oz, sixty percent of women don’t get enough protein in their diets and that is often the number one reason for fatigue! ( A morning protein shake is a really easy and delicious way to make sure that you’re starting the day off well fueled. Pair this with a piece of whole grain toast and you have everything you need to give you a solid energy foundation for the day.

Soylent 2.0 is bottled, ready to drink, and made from algae

Soylent, the oddly named meal replacement with a niche following (particularly in the Valley) has announced its second product this morning: Soylent 2.0, which comes ready to drink in recyclable bottles. Each bottle represents one-fifth of a daily meal plan. Twelve bottles will sell for $29 when they go on sale in October; preorders go live today. Just like the original, it’ll only be sold online, at least for the moment.

Traditionally, Soylent has been sold in powder form with the idea that the user would add water at their home, making as much as a full day’s ration at once — it’s cheaper and more efficient to produce and ship it that way. As a product, Soylent has always been about efficiency — so I asked its creator, Rob Rhinehart, why they were moving to a less efficient approach. “Shipping around water is a little inefficient,” he acknowledged. “However, we counter that by the fact that the drink does not require refrigeration and also does not spoil until at least one year. Given the amount of food that is thrown away, that spoils, and the unconscionable amount of energy that we spend on refrigeration in the United States, I think that it’s still a vast resource savings over the majority of the food system.”

“Shipping around water is a little inefficient.”

Soylent 2.0 will undoubtedly appeal to current Soylent users as a new grab-and-go option, but the company seems hopeful that this will also expand Soylent’s addressable base, perhaps among those who only want to use Soylent every once in a while to bridge a missed breakfast or lunch, or those who can’t be bothered with the mess and trouble of preparing it from powder. Soylent and the company behind it, Rosa Labs, are venture-backed with funding from Andreessen Horowitz and Lerer Ventures. Rhinehart says that they had shipped 6.25 million meals at their last count, which works out to around 1.56 million bags of the powdered product.

But once Soylent is pre-sold in a bottle, it starts to look a lot like existing meal replacement products — Ensure, for instance. Rhinehart disagrees: “It’s really designed in a much different fashion,” he says, noting that Soylent 2.0 will be processed using a newer method than the so-called retort sterilization employed by most drinks. He also blasts their nutritional value. “They’re really not sustainable. I mean, they’re loaded with sugar, they’re just way too sweet, and they don’t really have the macronutrient balance or the glycemic index that I would feel comfortable sustaining myself on or a user on.”

Rhinehart also boasts of Soylent 2.0’s caloric bang-for-your-buck, but it’s actually neck-and-neck with Ensure, depending on how you look at it. Soylent works out to about $2.42 per 400-calorie bottle, or $12.08 to meet your entire day’s nutritional needs. Amazon will sell you 16 bottles of Ensure for $19.97 — $1.25 per bottle — but you’d have to drink nine of them to get 2,000 calories, and some of the nutritional requirements would still be out of whack, whereas Soylent 2.0 is designed so the numbers work out evenly. (Also, drinking nine of anything per day sounds horrible.) The pricing is surprisingly competitive with Soylent 1.5 — the bagged powder, which will continue as a separate product — at around $9.11 per day, if you buy it four weeks at a time in a subscription plan.

“We did end up changing the formula a little bit.”

The most interesting thing about 2.0, though, might be where the calories come from. For the first time, Rhinehart’s team is using algae in a significant way, incorporating algal oil for a full half of its fat content. Does that affect the flavor? “We did end up changing the formula a little bit,” Rhinehart says. He describes the taste as “somewhat recognizable” to current users, calling it “neutral, but still pleasant.” (The company has recently hired a flavor scientist, he notes.) He’s been hinting that he wants to use algae to make Soylent for quite some time, citing higher efficiency and the lack of need for traditional agriculture techniques; 2.0 is a start, but the powder will eventually be reformulated to incorporate it as well.

And is Rhinehart — a well-documented nutritional experimenter — using 2.0 himself? “I’ve largely switched to the drink,” he says. “Actually, I got rid of my refrigerator, and the problem with the powder is you need to keep the pitcher in the refrigerator.”

How Food Marketers Make You Think You’re Choosing Healthy Food

How Food Marketers Make You Think You're Choosing Healthy Food

Plans to eat healthy can fly out the window when you step into a grocery store. Maybe you add junk food to your cart full of vegetables. Or maybe you believethe hype that a food is healthy, when it’s really not the best choice. Here are some of the traps that food marketers use against you.

They Use Healthy Promises to Distract You From the Truth on the Back of the Label

How Food Marketers Make You Think You're Choosing Healthy Food

Front-of-package nutrition information is a form of marketing, a sort of mini-ad to get you to pick up the product. It includes claims ranging from “All Natural” to “Gluten Free” to “Good Source Of…” or “Made With Real…” Some of these claims are regulated, some aren’t, but they’re all aiming to put a “health halo” on the product.

Here’s what that means: people consistently estimate calories as being lower in meals that they think are healthier—for example, people eating at Subway figure they’re taking in fewer calories than people eating at McDonald’s, even when that’s not true. Adding “trans fat free” crackers to a hypothetical meal makes people guess it has fewer calories than people in another group who saw the meal without the crackers.

There’s even evidence that, at least in food marketed to children, less-healthy foods are more likely to have health claims. Here’s a small study from the Prevention Institute explaining this idea, but a larger study presented at this week’s American Society for Nutrition conference confirms and updates it, noting that front-of-package marketing, especially for junk food, has gotten far more popular in recent years.

Now the good news: Just knowing that the “health halo” effect exists may help you fight it. There’s a lot of research on priming, the idea that making you think about something (health) influences decisions you’ll make. It turns out that if you know there’s a priming effect going on, you’re less susceptible to it.

So when you see health claims, be skeptical: they’re only there to help sell a product. Consider following or adapting Michael Pollan‘s “food rule” to avoid foods that are heavily advertised (even if what they’re advertising is their healthfulness.)

An important strategy is to not forget your nutritional goals. If you’re trying to avoid high-sugar foods, for example, flip over every package to check the sugar content. Don’t get distracted by what’s on the front.

They Hope You’re Making Healthy Decisions Somewhere Else

How Food Marketers Make You Think You're Choosing Healthy Food

It’s good news for junk food manufacturers if you’re bringing your own bags and filling your cart with vegetables. Actions like those can make you think you’re already doing such a good job at this shopping thing (You care about the environment! You’re buying lots of healthy food!) that you figure you can break a few rules.

Shoppers who bring their own bags buy more organic foods, but also more junk food, according to a Harvard Business School study of grocery store data. While that’s only a correlation, the researchers did a pretty good job of ensuring they were comparing shopping trips that were similar except for the bags. So does this mean you’re better off leaving the bags at home? Not necessarily, but it might help to change what thought those bags trigger in your mind: Not “Look at the good thing I’ve done,” but “Here’s my intention (to shop mindfully) and I’m going to fill these grocery bags with foods that reflect that intention.”

If you’re going to set a goal of buying healthy food (like filling half your cart with fruits and vegetables, marketing psychology researcher Gavan Fitzsimons suggests that you should also set a goal for what not to do, rather than expecting the no-no’s to take care of themselves. It’s a similar effect to the health halo, but this time on the scale of a whole grocery cart: if your cart contains obviously healthy things, you’ll be biased to think the whole cart is healthy.

They Publicize Benefits and Create (or Ride) Trends

How Food Marketers Make You Think You're Choosing Healthy Food

The hottest health foods seem to change every minute, but that’s not because new foods are constantly being discovered, or because the newly trendy foods are better than old ones. It’s because magazines can’t sell “Spinach is still good for you!” every month, so media and food companies ride waves of arugula being the best, then baby greens, then kale. (I hear watercress might be making a comeback next.) Variety is great, but that doesn’t mean there was ever anything wrong with spinach.

As I write this, I’m at the American Society of Nutrition conference, listening to scientific presentations on nutrition—and the number of corporate logos is astounding. Not just the biggies like Pepsi and Kellogg, but specialized groups too: if there’s a study on cranberry juice, for example, you can bet there will be an Ocean Spray logo on the acknowledgements slide.

Corporate funding doesn’t mean the study is bogus, but topics with good funding are more likely to be investigated (or in other words, funding doesn’t always bias the answer, but does buy the question.) To use another example from this conference, take the news that adding eggs to your salad makes the vitamins in the vegetables more available to your body. Amazing, right? It’s actually not news: fat-soluble vitamins are more available to your body when you eat them with fat. The same researcher who did this work has shown the same effect with other foods, including oils. So why are eggs getting the press? Take a look at the funder (which most of the news articles aren’t reporting): the American Egg Board.

How to thwart this one: return to your goals again. Is the trendy or newsworthy food really helping you with a goal you care about? (For example, were you worried about vitamin bioavailability from your salads? Probably not.) If a trendy new food fits those goals, sure, give it a try. But also use a stodgy old relative as a mental foil: What would Grandpa eat? Chances are, the old standby (Spinach? Strawberries?) is just as good, and cheaper.

Images by hikingartist, Robert Couse-Baker,, Lars Plougmann.

How to Shop, Cook, and Eat Healthy When Eating for One

If you’re always on-the-go, meal replacement shakes are practical. They get extra brownie points for being portable and convenient. Ideally, they would make an easy meal or snack when the other option is a hanger-induced run to the nearest drive-through, or even worse, just going hungry. Simply add water (or milk) and it’ll shush any loud, growling stomach. Then there’s the added advantage of taking the guesswork out of planning and preparing healthier meals; or in the case of Soylent, being a quick meal when just eating is simply a hassle.

As part of a weight loss regimen, shakes can be helpful, if drinking it means you’re not eating junk calories elsewhere. So, if you swap out your typical breakfast of a blueberry muffin chased with a vanilla soy latte (a potential difference of 300-600 calories), then you’ll be eating fewer calories overall. Do this enough to be consistently in a calorie deficit, and you’re well on your way to weight loss! That’s all it is.

There’s nothing magical about meal replacement shakes themselves for weight loss, except for the fact that they tend to have a thicker consistency, which helps suppress hunger. In shakes with a higher fat content like Soylent, the fat can help you feel fuller for longer because they leave the stomach more slowly. Overall, it’s still all a matter of controlling how many calories you eat though. If you’re drinking shakes in addition to staying on your regular eating habits, you can bet the scale will rebel against your wishes.

However, that does mean these are perfect for people with the opposite problem who have trouble gaining weight. For these folks, they typically lack the appetite to eat the required amount of calories for weight gain, so shakes (and any additional source of calories, really) can be a no-fuss way to get more calories without making them feel too uncomfortable and bloated.

Overall, meal replacement shakes like Shakeology have their place and can be useful for lifestyles that constantly call for quick and convenient meals, but they can quite literally come at a high cost. In reality, we could all use a reminder that meal replacement shakes are just like any other supplement: use them if you need the extra boost in calories in your day.


Foods and drugs that should never be mixed

BANANAS, a few leafy greens, half a grapefruit and a class of milk sound like the makeup of a healthy diet, right?

Well, they are, but for those taking certain medications — these foods, as well as your favourite glass of wine or cup of coffee, may actually prevent certain prescription drugs from working, or even cause serious side effects.

Known as food-drug interactions, some foods can make a side effect from medicines worse, or even create a new side effect altogether if not consumed with caution.

“Certain foods have certain chemicals that affect the metabolic processes in the body,” Dr Ross Walker told

“Just because they are natural doesn’t mean they don’t have an affect on the body. There are a whole list of chemicals in food that have an impact on metabolism.

“The big point is that patients need to have a frank discussion with their doctor about everything they are putting in their mouth, whether it be herbs, food, beverages or supplements because they can all interact with medications.”

So what combinations should be avoided?


If you’re enjoying a grapefruit in the morning, but also taking medication to lower your cholesterol, maybe consider taking it off your daily menu. This particular fruit can play around with how your body metabolises certain drugs, meaning more of the drug can end up in your blood stream.

”Grapefruit is a very important food to understand when taking certain medication,” Dr Walker said.

“Statins have a strong interaction with grapefruit, as the fruit blocks a very important enzyme in the liver, which is a drug metaboliser.

“If you take the statin, the levels rise so much in the blood you may get side effects like muscle pain and aches.

“People should avoid grapefruit if you’re on antibiotics as well.”


If you’re taking antibiotics and certain osteoporosis medication, avoid washing it down with a glass of milk. Calcium can interfere with the effects of some antibiotics, so other products like cheese and yoghurt should also be avoided when on medication like tetracycline, ciprofloxacin or alendronate.

“There’s a few antibiotics which milk can block the absorption,” Dr Walker said.

“This is because the calcium in milk binds to the drug in the gut and reduces absorption.”


With bananas being so high in potassium, they can have an impact when taking blood pressure medication. Too much potassium, which can also be found in oranges and leafy greens, can cause irregular heartbeats and palpitations.

“The idea of not eating bananas at all while taking medications that lowers blood pressure and treating heart failure is not overly accurate,” Dr Walker said.

“If people are eating foods with high levels potassium, they may raise their levels to a high point, but its very uncommon.

“Check with your doctor, especially if you do have a kidney problem. But people who think they can’t go near a banana is complete nonsense.”

Black licorice

Taking heart medication and enjoy a piece of licorice as an afternoon treat? The sweet contains glycyrrhizin, which lowers the potassium in your body and can be dangerous to those who with certain heart conditions. Mixing digoxin (treatment for certain heart conditions) with glycyrrhizin can cause irregular heartbeats and may even lead to a heart attack.

“Licorice has a glycyrrhizin acid, which is good for stomach ulcers but also lowers potassium in the body,” Dr Walker said.

“Low levels of potassium can cause cardiac arrest, so people should avoid licorice if on heart medication.”

Herbal licorice extract can also interfere with a host of other medications including insulin, certain antidepressants, oral contraceptives, blood thinners, and some other medications.

Kale and leafy greens

It’s been praised as a super food, but if you’re on blood thinning medication, or drugs that aid the treatment of irregular heartbeats, kale along with other leafy vegetables can interfere in a negative way.

A drug like Warfarin has the greatest impact, which is an anticoagulant normally used in the prevention of the formation of blood clots in the blood vessels.

“Kale is one of many green veggies that has a lot of Vitamin K1, and the popular drug Warfarin works by blocking Vitamin K1,” Dr Walker said.

“So if you are consuming a lot of leafy vegetables that have a heap of the vitamin, it can reduce the effect of Warfarin.

“The newer drugs don’t have any effect at all from kale and other leafy greens, but Warfarin is still the most common, and the one that’s exclusively used in valve replacements.

“So aspirins, for example, leafy greens have no interactions,” he added.


If you suffer from asthma, advice is to avoid coffee because the common side effects associated with caffeine include palpitations, nervousness and excitability.

But according to a study on couples out of the US, it is those hoping to conceive that should really avoid consuming coffee.

The study out of the National Institutes of Health and Ohio State University, showed that in a study of 344 couples who achieved a pregnancy, 28 per cent had a miscarriage in the first eight weeks. But, it also showed that if a couple had more than two cups of coffee in the few weeks before conceiving, there was a 75 per cent increase for miscarriage.

“If you continued the coffee in to the pregnancy, it keeps the risk of a miscarriage quite high,” Dr Ross said.

“But, if you take a multivitamin in the weeks before falling pregnant, it lowers the risk of a miscarriage by 55 per cent, and continuing to take it in the early parts of pregnancy sees a 79 per cent reduction in first trimester.

“Basically, men and women should be making their bodies havens before getting pregnant.”


Lots of medicines often come with a warning to avoid consuming with alcohol. This is because of the pressure alcohol puts on your liver, which is “the major processor in the body.”

“Everything in your mouth goes through the liver,” Dr Walker said.

“There’s a whole heap of drugs that alcohol perpetuates the sedative effect. Alcohol can effect the liver, so it can screw around with how your body works.

“You might get dangerous levels of the drug in your blood stream when paired with alcohol, it’s tiger country when you are dealing with all these things together.”


Do Vitamins Work?

Vitamins can be a mysterious entity you put into your body on a daily basis that rarely has any noticeable effects. It’s hard to gauge for yourself if it’s worth the price and effort, so we put all our questions about vitamins to experts to help us differentiate between wasted cash and a helpful supplement.

Photo by Lisa Brewster.

We’ve asked a few experts to chime in on the importance of vitamin intake and the best practices for doing so. We have Health Coach and Dietitian Krista Lennox MA, RD, CDN, Nutritionist Andy Bellatti MS, RD, and Department of Exercise and Sports Science at the University of South Carolina Aiken’s Dr. Brian Parr.

Do I need to take a daily multivitamin if I eat healthy?

Do Vitamins Actually Work?

Since we haven’t arrived in a science-fiction-esque future where a pill can supply all the nutrition we need in one swallow we use multivitamins to supplement what we might be missing from our diets. As it turns out, knowing your diet’s limitations is the best step to figuring out if you need a multivitamin. Krista Lennox weighs in:

For most healthy Americans under the age of 50 it is possible to meet necessary nutrient needs through diet alone. Consumption of a wide variety of colorful, nutritious food is the best way to maintain health and prevent chronic disease. With that being said, it is important to note that most Americans do not meet the recommended amount of nutrients in their diet. Through increased intake of fruits and vegetables, low fat dairy products, whole grains, and fortified foods Americans can help ensure the quality of their diet so they’re more likely to meet nutritional needs.

Dr. Parr agrees:

Probably not, but maybe. If you eat a healthy diet that contains a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy you likely get adequate levels of vitamins and minerals. Remember, you are supplementing your diet so you don’t need a multivitamin/mineral that contains 100% (or more) of the recommended daily allowance for each vitamin or mineral. Really, the Flintstones vitamin you took as a kid would be sufficient. It may not provide great health benefits, but it also would be unlikely to cause any problems.

Andy Bellati’s take is similar, but he outlines a more specific regiment instead of a multivitamin approach:

Not surprisingly, many Americans don’t consume sufficient amounts of the nutrients that are easily lost during the processing of food. Approximately 3/4 of American adults don’t get enough magnesium in their diet, which is a crucial mineral for blood pressure regulation, among other functions. Top sources? Spinach, potatoes, nuts, and oats.

Vitamin D deficiency is rampant. The latest research shows that current recommendations for 600 International Units a day are too low. Part of the problem is that recommendations are made solely on vitamin D’s role in bone health, while newer research takes into consideration the multitude of functions vitamin D is necessary for. I urge all my clients to take 2,000 to 4,000 International Units a day. If it seems like too much, keep in mind that if you get your vitamin D from the sun, the body produces 10,000 International Units and then ceases production.

If you avoid certain types of foods, supplements might help fill in the blanks of your diet. Andy Bellati recommends a few good supplements:

I recommend vitamin B12 supplements for people who avoid animal products.

In many cases, I recommend probiotic supplements. A healthy gut is very important for overall health, and too many people wreck their gut flora (aka the friendly critters in our colon that help with immunity and nutrient absorption) with poor diets, exposure to environmental toxins, and stress. Probiotic supplements should ideally be purchased refrigerated and stored that way at home.

For individuals who do not normally eat fish or sea vegetables (two sources of DHA and EPA Omega-3 fatty acids), I recommend they supplement with either fish oils or algae oil. A consistent intake of DHA and EPA Omega-3 fatty acids (also known as “fish oil”, although sea vegetables also offer them) is crucial for heart health.

Photo by Matt Reinbold.

How do I know if I need supplements?

Do Vitamins Actually Work?

None of this information is really useful unless you have a way to figure out if you even need to be taking supplements in the first place. To do so, you’ll need to take a close look at your diet or get a blood test with your physician to check for deficiency.

Dr. Parr notes that it’s difficult to self-assess and even though supplements can work to battle deficiency, the purpose stops there. Which is to say, there aren’t added benefits from taking more than your daily allowance:

Given the nature of the typical American diet, people really may not be getting enough essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals in their diet. Typically not low enough to cause deficiency symptoms, but lower levels than are recommended. In these cases, a supplement would be advised.

Andy Belatti adds that the main goal for people should be to improve the overall diet as opposed to relying on supplements:

Technically, it’s smart to supplement if your diet is not high in nutrients. However, when I work with clients who consume minimally nutritious diets, my goal is to include more nutritious foods, rather than go straight for supplements. Supplements can only do so much. Popping a multivitamin every day is a moot point if your diet is high in unhealthy fats, sodium, and added sugars.

Photo by Erich Ferdinand.

Are there negative effects from taking too many vitamins?

It is possible to get too much of a good thing and in the case of vitamins, it’s important to watch your intake. In this case, it’s the fat-soluble vitamins because they’re stored in your liver and fatty tissues and aren’t needed typically needed on a daily basis. The water-soluble vitamins make a quick exit in your urine if you take too much, but the fat-soluble vitamins hole up as long as they can.

Dr. Parr explains how to keep your intake on the level:

Toxicity can result from very high doses and is most common with the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, K. Again, taking a supplement that provides less than 100% of the RDA for each vitamin and mineral is likely safe.

Krista Lennox adds:

When it comes to vitamins more is not always better, according to a recent study the nutrients most likely to exceed the tolerable upper intake levels are iron, zinc, vitamin A and niacin.

Can vitamins improve my athletic performance?

Do Vitamins Actually Work?

We’ve all heard about pumping in certain types of vitamins and minerals when we’re working out or trying to prep our bodies for a hearty workout, but does it really work? Dr. Parr doesn’t think so:

In theory, some vitamins and minerals COULD improve exercise performance or health, but research into vitamin/mineral supplementation tends to show a lack of positive effect. Here are three examples:

1) Iron is an essential component in oxygen transport in the blood and muscle. Iron deficiency can impair exercise performance by lowering oxygen delivery to the muscle, an essential step in producing energy for muscular activity. In iron deficiency cases, an iron supplement can reverse the deficiency and restore exercise performance. But taking an iron supplement when you have normal iron levels would not improve performance. In fact, excess iron intake can cause liver damage.

2) I have seen several studies that report that certain vitamin supplements have no effect at reducing the risk of chronic diseases, like heart disease or cancer. In particular, high doses of vitamins A, C, E and the mineral selenium (all antioxidants) don’t appear to lower the risk of chronic diseases and may actually increase the risk of death.

3) Deficiencies of certain nutrients can have a negative effect on immune function, so eating a balanced diet is essential. That said, there is no support for “boosting” the immune system by taking high doses of vitamins, minerals, or other supplements, despite the claims made by supplement companies. In fact, supplement manufacturers are not required to prove their products have any beneficial effects, so the majority of nutritional supplements have not undergone appropriate testing. For those supplements that have been tested, the results are not consistent with the claims.

If this is the case, shouldn’t taking more of those vitamins improve health? I think that the answer lies in the difference between eating food that contains nutrients and taking high doses of those nutrients. Maybe the vitamins themselves cannot make up for an inadequate diet. The whole (the food people eat) is more important than the sum of its parts (the individual nutrients that make up those foods).

Photo by lululemon athletica.

Is there a difference between a supplement and the vitamins I get in food?

Now we know that vitamin and mineral supplements work best to fill in the gaps of your diet but shouldn’t be used as a supplement for eating healthy. But is the difference between a supplement and real food really that big of a deal? It turns out it is, Kristi Lennox explains:

Supplements are not intended to replace foods because they cannot provide all of the nutrients and benefits of whole foods. Whole foods are complex therefore one food can contain multiple nutrients essential for health. Fiber has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and also help in weight management. Whole foods also contain naturally occurring substances which can help protect your health.

Andy Bellati agrees and expands a little:

In many cases, yes. When Vitamin E is isolated, for example, it does not work as efficiently as it does within its original food matrix. Foods high in vitamin E (mainly nuts and seeds) contain compounds that interact with vitamin E in such a way that allows it to operate efficiently.

As it turns out, vitamins can have a positive effect on your overall health, but it’s best to use them exclusively as a supplement to a good diet. When you’re out shopping, don’t forget to buy whatever is on sale, since they’re all the same. Overdosing on vitamins isn’t worth much either, so if you’re going to go the multivitamin route, make sure it’s not providing too much of any fat-soluble vitamins or alternately, consider supplementing with just the specific mineral and vitamins you need based on your diet.

Andy Bellatti, MS, RD is a Seattle-based Nutritionist and the author of the nutrition blog Small Bites. You can follow him on Twitter at @andybellatti.
Krista Lennox MA, RD, CDN is a Health Coach and Registered Dietitian.
Brian Parr, Ph.D is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at the University of South Carolina Aiken.