Do nutritional supplements equal bad diet?

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more (PDF Version).

The other day, I saw the following comment under an article about vegan nutrition:

“Show me a vegan that actually looks and feels healthy (without vitamin and mineral supplements) and I’d consider not hating vegans”

I am not a vegan, so let’s put aside the question whether a vegan diet can be healthy without nutritional supplements for now (and also why on Earth you would hate someone for choosing not to eat something?). The real question is: Is there any reason why taking or having to take nutritional supplements would make your diet somehow wrong or inadequate?

I ate a few pieces of fudge yesterday, and it was delicious. The list of ingredients reads: Sugar, Glucose Syrup, Vegetable Oil, Milk, Butter, Emulsifier, Salt, Flavouring. Was it healthy? Surely not. Is it okay to eat something like that a few times a week? Of course, it’s not going to hurt you. No-one would say my whole diet is bad just because I ate some fudge.

But imagine the horror when instead of eating sweets, I would eat something that contains fewer chemicals and actually makes me healthier! Terrible. Apparently, eating small pieces of processed food is only natural as long as it isn’t too healthy.

What about completely ordinary foods? Are they somehow “natural” and “not chemical”? Let’s take a look at the following yummy recipe:

Take embryonic plants, let them pass through a mechanical separator, aspirator, centrifuge, grinder, and a purifier, and mix the result with a liquid harvested by robotic pumps from mammary glands, animal protein, and crystals made by mixing Ca(OH)2 with ground plant roots and carbonating and drying them.
Put the resulting material into a solution made of lipids squeezed mechanically out of other embryonic plants and heat everything to a high temperature to let proteins denature and starches gelatinize.
Finally, pour sugar syrup mechanically extracted from a tree and distilled in controlled conditions over the porous result.
Congratulations! Your maple syrup pancakes are ready!

Most people would consider this to be a perfectly fine meal. But eating a pill prepared by mixing fermented organic matter (vitamin B12) with a bit of dietary fibre? How daring.

I never understood this sentiment. The ultimate goal is being healthy, after all. A vegan diet with proper supplementation can be healthier than the diet of those omnivores who mock vegans for having to take supplements, and even many people who eat meat would benefit from proper supplementation. Nutritional supplements are just a part of diet which can make it richer and healthier.

The problem is when someone thinks “all right, I don’t have to eat fruits and vegetables, because I take a multivitamin”. That’s not how nutrition works. Nutrition is not only about separate nutrients, but also about their form, interactions, absorption, and timing. Some nutrients work great even in isolation in the form of supplements, e.g. vitamins B12 and D, but others do not. If your diet is healthy to start with and you take supplements which are known to be beneficial in addition to it, then it is a great diet; the supplements make it better, not worse.

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