I am frequently asked whether we need vitamins and minerals, even if we are eating a healthy diet. We need to bear in mind that many people suffer from deficiency symptoms, which are often not recognised as such, but can show up in the form of diseases. These deficiencies cannot always be balanced entirely by a healthy diet alone.
In this week’s article I’m going to share a little bit about how you can resolve deficiencies in your diet. First of all, it’s important to bear in mind that I can only present you with the facts and there is no one right way to eat for everyone. We are all different and learning to become more intuitive about your body’s needs is essential. You may wish to explore your own individual nutritional needs by seeking advice from a registered health professional, such as a functional medicine doctor, who can run specific lab tests to see if you’re a running short on any vital nutrients. I highly recommend this if you are dealing with specific health issues as people with chronic conditions tend to be deficient in certain nutrients and will require a tailored protocol to support them in their healing journey.
Nowadays, natural healing methods meet an enormous need and many of us want to be involved in our health, and are seeking treatments that we understand and which do not suppress our body’s own energy. Whilst the internet is a fantastic way to get information right at your fingertips, it is full of conflicting information – especially about health, and even more specifically about vitamins and supplements. If the internet is your source for information about what supplements you should and should not take, it can get pretty confusing, and many of the clients I see tell me they don’t know where to start. You’ve heard me say often, a one-size-fits all doesn’t exist – we are each unique and therefore have different requirements.
Nutritional supplements can be hugely beneficial when managing chronic health issues and they can really support you on your healing journey. While the 3 Sources philosophy prioritises food as medicine rather than with a pill, it’s wise to add a few core supplements to your regimen. Some of these supplements function as nutritional insurance against so many chronic diseases that inevitably come from our busy modern lifestyles. It’s my belief that something as simple as ½ teaspoon of turmeric (or a capsule, when taken as a supplement) can contain properties so indispensable for the health of your body that its regular use could profoundly alter your health state.
But the key is not to take excessive doses, nor dozens of different supplements. More is not necessarily better, and research shows that smaller doses are sometimes more therapeutic than larger ones. Contrary to what you might think, nutrients don’t work in isolation. Nutrients work together like a symphony in the body, so taking high levels of one particular nutrient can knock other nutrients out of balance. Whilst overdosing on certain nutrients that are usually derived from food is extremely rare, one should be careful with fat soluble vitamins like vitamin A, D, E, and K. You can run the risk of disrupting the natural rhythm and balance of your body or duplicating certain nutrients, which is something I see a lot. Reading labels is therefore really important, especially when taking multi-blends. Another critical thing to remember is that when you are trying out something new, introduce it very slowly, don’t throw everything but the kitchen sink at your body, and don’t add anything else for at least three days, so your body has a chance to adjust. Your body is wise and knows what’s good for it or not. You just have to listen carefully.
Many people ask me which supplement brands I recommend. Unfortunately, I can’t do that on this broad platform. I can only recommend clinician-approved supplements when I work with individuals on a one-to-one basis, once I’ve carried out a detailed health history, and usually after ordering specific lab tests. However, as I’ve said before, my approach is always food first, making sure that you are getting a varied diet that flows with the pattern of the seasons. Taking a pill will never replace a whole food and plant-rich diet, so the focus should always be on ensuring that you are getting the maximum nutrients from your food, such as pre-soaking grains, legumes, nuts and seeds to reduce the phytic acid that affects our absorption of the nutrients in these foods. Chewing is another really important factor of proper nutrient absorption. It helps to break down food into very small particles, which enables other important digestive processes and enzymes to better access the nutrients contained within them.
How we cook also really affects the preservation of the nutrients in our foods. For some vegetables, cooking actually boosts antioxidants. Cooked carrots for example, have higher bioavailable antioxidants than their raw counterparts. To reap the full benefits from carrots and other beta-carotene rich orange foods, give them a roast. I generally prefer steam, sautéing sir frying and roasting, opposed to boiling, which tends to lower nutrient content. You lose water soluble B vitamins and vitamin C when you boil vegetables, so cooking at low temperatures without exposing them too much to water optimises their nutrient potential.
Coming back to supplements, switching entirely to plant-based foods requires intention and forethought in order to make sure you are nourishing yourself adequately. There a few specific nutrients that require special attention, especially if you are following a mostly plant based way of eating, so it’s important to supplement some of these nutrients to make sure that you are giving your body what it needs in order to thrive.
A well-balanced plant-based plate focuses on vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds and it should include protein, healthy fats, fibre and greens. I believe that eating a mostly plant-based diet can provide all the nutrients essential for long-term good health, however, here are a few nutrients you do need to pay particular attention to.
The first one is calcium. Calcium serves several important functions in the body, including building strong bones and teeth, regulating muscle contractions (including your heartbeat) and making sure your blood clots normally. Adults require 700mg of calcium a day and we should be able to get all the calcium we need from our diet, without further supplementation. Calcium-rich plant foods include: whole sesame seeds (or tahini), leafy greens, tofu, chia seeds, almonds, sunflower seeds, broccoli and beetroot greens.
Our bodies make vitamin D from exposure to sunlight. However, for many of us the sun isn’t strong enough during winter, so we can become deficient during these months. You can get vitamin D from some plant-based foods such as mushrooms, especially shiitake mushrooms, but most of us will need to take a vitamin D3 supplement during autumn and winter. However, because most people are deficient in vitamin D, and since it’s easily measurable, I recommend that you get your base line vitamin D level checked first by your doctor. Testing your vitamin D level requires a quick and simple blood test and the results will guide you on how much you’ll need to supplement.
Since vitamin D is fat-soluble, you can take advantage of vitamin synergy by combining vitamin D3 with vitamin K2, which is another fat soluble vitamin that works synergistically with D3. Taking a liposomal form of vitamin D3 and K2 will help make it more bioavailable and balanced in the body. Liposomal basically means the supplement contains some form of fat to aid in absorption. Alternatively, you can take this combination with foods rich in healthy fats such as avocado, olive oil and coconut to increase their bioavailability.
Iodine deficiency is the most common cause of thyroid disease and preventable mental health issues worldwide and it’s a very common nutrient to fall short on as there aren’t that many foods that contain iodine. The main source of plant-derived iodine is edible seaweed. I recommend that you aim to consume sea vegetables, such as kelp, wakame, kombu, or nori a couple of times a week. However, if you are dealing with thyroid-related health issues, please speak to your doctor before you start increasing these foods in your diet.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
As I mentioned in previous lessons, omega-3 fatty acids are essential for optimal health, especially cellular function. Omega-3 fatty acids fall into two categories: ALA and DHA/EPA. ALA is found in a range of plant-based sources including: nuts and seeds, especially walnuts and pumpkin seeds, and cold pressed oils, particularly flax seed oil. DHA and EPA omega-3 fats both play crucial roles in brain development and heart health. The body can’t make these fatty acids from ALA, so this is why it’s important to include plenty of ALA-rich sources in your diet daily. However, people following a mostly plant-based diet may wish to consider supplementing, and for people with an inflammatory background to their health picture, omega 3 fatty acids are important for taming inflammation and improving cellular health.
The long-standing belief was that these nutrients were only available from fish, but these creatures get DHA and EPA from eating microalgae and seaweed. Along with thyroid-supporting iodine, you can receive bioavailable sources of these fats by incorporating chlorella or spirulina into your diet. ALA, or alpha-linolenic, acid is the third essential omega-3 fat that is critical for human growth and development—potent food sources include walnuts, chia seeds, Brussels sprouts, and cold pressed oils, (especially flax seed oil).
Vitamin B12 is extremely important for energy metabolism, and too little can result in fatigue, anaemia, and even nerve damage down the line. Animal products are the main source of vitamin B12, so if you are following a mostly plant-based diet, the only reliable sources of vitamin B12 are fortified foods and nutritional yeast, which will likely not be sufficient to support your nutritional needs. Vitamin B12 supplements are recommended if you are following a completely plant based diet. If you feel fatigued I recommend you work with a qualified health professional to periodically check your B12 levels. However, you can safely take vitamin B12 daily, in the form of a vitamin B complex supplement containing methylated B vitamins.
B vitamins are the fuel behind methylation, a biochemical process that happens more than 1 billion times every single second inside your body and they help to keep you alive and healthy by assisting your body’s ability to properly detoxify. Vitamin B12 and B9 also should be supplemented if you are following an exclusively plant based diet. There are many different types of B vitamins, so it’s important to get in a well-rounded amount of each in a complex form.
Iron supports numerous roles in the body. It helps maintain our immune system and assists in the formation of haemoglobin, which transports oxygen around the body. A lack of iron can lead to iron deficiency (anaemia) with symptoms including tiredness, lack of energy, shortness of breath, and pale skin. Plant-derived sources of iron include: lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, cashew nuts, chia, flax, hemp, and pumpkin seeds, kale, dried apricots and figs, and quinoa.
Zinc helps with the production of new cells and enzymes, processing carbohydrates, proteins and fats in food, as well as wound healing. Phytates found in zinc-rich plant-derived foods such as whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds reduce zinc absorption, as well as other nutrients, which is why it’s important to soak these whole foods overnight and rinse them well before cooking to improve the bioavailability and absorption of nutrients.
If you’re eating a healthy whole food diet, you should be achieving the proper amount of zinc per day without needing a supplement. However, if you are particularly run down, supplementing for short periods of time and support you on your health journey. Combining vitamin C with zinc can increase its immune-boosting properties. As with vitamin D, look for liposomal versions, which increases the bioavailability of this mineral.
Selenium plays an important role in the health of your immune system. It helps lower oxidative stress in your body, which reduces inflammation and enhances immunity. Plant sources include wholegrain rice, chia and sesame seeds, shiitake mushrooms, broccoli, cabbage, and spinach. In fact, just two Brazil nuts daily will provide you with your complete daily requirement of selenium.
So, as you can see, some of the important nutrients required for optimal function can be sourced easily from food if we are intentional about it, whilst a few are best supplemented. Oftentimes, most people really only need a small handful of targeted vitamins and supplements that will actually be beneficial.
The goal is to determine which particular supplements can actually make a difference in your health, and how to incorporate them into your daily eating routine. When chosen intentionally, these will help to fill in any nutritional gaps and protect your body against the damaging effects of inflammation, whilst offering deeper level support for your immune system and overall health. As I said before, supplements won’t make up for a bad diet, rather you should think of them as your nutritional pit crew, standing at the ready to make those tweaks and fixes to your internal engines to get you back out on the road.
“The most powerful medicine is at the end of your fork, not at the bottom of your pill bottle. The fork is your most powerful tool to change your health and the planet; food is the most powerful medicine to heal.” – Dr Mark Hyman