Health food stores, in particular those that are heavy on nutritional supplements and functional foods, don’t live up to their name. 90%+ of the nutritional products – protein powders, vitamin pills, energy bars, sports drinks, and so forth – they sell are far from healthy. Nevertheless, a lot of people buy and use these types of products on a regular basis. It appears that we humans have come to think that we need to use a myriad of nutritional supplements and consume “special” food products in order to attain good health and optimize our physical fitness.
This is worrying. It isn’t necessarily surprising though, seeing as we are constantly bombarded with commercials and ads for nutritional products and supplements that are supposedly created in such a way that they are capable of taking our health and athletic performance to a new level. A lot of people buy into these marketing campaigns and put their trust in lean, sexy, and muscular fitness profiles who are sponsored by supplement manufacturers and promote the use of a variety of different supplements and special, highly processed functional food products. Hence, it’s not surprising that health food stores do good business or that the supplement market is today a billion-dollar enterprise.
My purpose with this article is to highlight the fact that there are no magic bullets or quick fixes that will equip us with great health, and that stores that sell a variety of different supplements and so-called functional foods are not health food stores, but rather unhealthful food stores.
The dietary supplement industry is arguably harming people’s health
I’ve talked at length about the adverse health effects associated with the use of many different types of dietary supplements and functional foods here on the site in the past. I’ve pointed out that whey protein powder is acnegenic, highly insulinogenic, and possesses microbiota-disrupting properties, among other things; that vitamin and mineral supplements can cause nutritional imbalances, disturb quorum sensing in the gut, and raise one’s risk of developing of variety of chronic illnesses (1, 2); that regular use of probiotic supplements in most instances does more harm than good; and that functional foods are inferior to real, whole foods.
Many other supplements and nutritional products that I haven’t talked that much here on the site are also problematic. For example, the use of certain types of antioxidant supplements has been shown to increase morbidity and mortality (3, 4), and the intake of energy drinks has been linked with a variety of health issues (5, 6, 7).
In today’s article I’m not going to revisit these topics and get into another lengthy discussion of how different supplements and functional foods affect our health. Instead I thought I’d briefly look into, from a bird’s eye perspective, why dietary supplements and functional food products don’t seem to match as well with our biology as real, whole foods.
An evolutionary perspective
It’s not just microbes that have co-evolved with us humans. Plants and animals arguably have as well. We have shaped their evolution and they have shaped ours. This is important to recognize, because it implies that when we “break” whole foods into their respective constituents and isolate and use one or more of these constituents to create a dietary supplement, we’re meddling with and altering relationships that were forged over billions of years of evolution. Basically, we’re interfering with the co-evolutionary relationship that exists between ourselves and the parts of the natural world that make up our nutritional menu.
Whey protein powders, energy bars, sports drinks, and so forth have a nutrient composition that looks nothing like that of whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, and meat. They contain nutrient combinations that are found nowhere in nature and typically contain supranormal concentrations of one or two substances, such as calcium or protein. No wonder these products have been shown to be capable of messing up the hormonal and nutritional milieu of the human body.
Throughout 99.9% of our evolutionary history, dietary supplements and functional food products were not a part of the diet of any human on this planet. The human body evolved in the presence of real, whole foods, which unlike nutritional supplements and man-made food products contain a natural balance of nutrients, phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals, hormones, and so forth.
The human genome was sculpted as a result of the selective pressures imposed upon it throughout evolutionary time, including the pressures imposed by the nutritional environment. It goes without saying that natural selection has never gotten around to rearranging our metabolic and digestive systems in such a way that they match well with a diet that contains several types of food products that compositionally differ markedly from whole foods.
We don’t know everything there is to know about how the food we’re eating is composed
Unlike what some people seem to think, we humans don’t know everything there is to know about the food we eat. When one travels through a grocery store, in which different foods are nicely packaged in plastic containers and lined up for the consumers, it’s easy to forget that foods are derived from living organisms. Plants and animals are, just like humans, complex biological systems.
Foods are not just composed of simple mixtures of vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients; they also contain a wide variety of other compounds, some of which we’ve only recently discovered and/or gotten to know. For example, quite recently it was shown that certain types of hormones found in plant foods influence human physiological processes related to glucose assimilation, inflammation, and cell division (8).
These facts, that real foods, unlike supplements, contain a natural balance of different nutrients and other substances, and that we humans are still learning new things about how foods are composed, as well as how different compounds in food affect our health, are largely overlooked by supplement manufacturers.
Supplement reviews based on the results of randomized controlled trials miss the mark
One doesn’t have to look far and wide to find studies that appear to show that it’s beneficial to use probiotics, whey protein powder, and other types of dietary supplements. For example, if you go on PubMed, you can find a large number of clinical trials that conclude that the use of probiotic supplements favorably affects gut health.
In the past, I’ve talked at length about why I’m very hesitant to base my opinions of dietary supplements exclusively on these types of studies. It’s obviously important to consider the results of clinical trials; however, it’s also important to keep in mind that the clinical trials in this area have several limitations that limit their usefulness.
The key issue is that most of them only include one or a couple of endpoints. To illustrate this, let’s quickly go over how a typical study on whey protein is designed and conducted. Usually, a group of people (e.g., athletes, strength trainees) are recruited and randomized into two groups. One group is instructed to consume x grams of whey protein powder each day and the other group is instructed to consume nothing at all or a placebo powder that is devoid of protein. Additionally, all of the participants are instructed to adhere to a similar strength training regime.
Before and after the intervention, the researchers who are conducting the study perform various tests in order to determine how the participants are affected by the intervention. Let’s say that the researchers find, via their statistical analyses, that the whey-consuming group increased their 1 RM in several lifts to a greater extent than the participants that didn’t consume whey. Moreover, they gained more muscle. Based on these findings, the researchers come to the conclusion that whey protein supplementation enhances hypertrophy and strength-related adaptations to strength training.
A lot of people who come across a study such as this one immediately jump to the conclusion that it’s beneficial to use whey protein powder. What these individuals fail to pick up on is that there’s actually not that much we can learn from studies that are conducted in a manner similar to that of the study described above. There are a number of reasons why this is the case. First of all, in the above study, the protein intake was not matched between the two groups. Second, perhaps more importantly, the study tells us nothing about how the participants’ immune system, microbiome, gene expression, or long-term health was affected by the intervention. Basically, it doesn’t really tell us whether it’s healthy or not to supplement with whey protein.
Some fitness writers who regularly examine the characteristics and benefits of various supplements base their opinions of different supplements almost exclusively on the results of clinical trials that are conducted in a similar manner as the study above. As highlighted above, that approach is fallacious.
All of this is to say that it’s very important to be careful and critical when one interprets the results of studies on dietary supplements or reads “science-based” supplement reviews. Randomized controlled trials only provide us with some of the information we need to make sense of how different types of dietary supplements affect our health.
So far, you may have gotten the impression that pretty much all dietary supplements do more harm than good and that no one can benefit from using supplements of any form. That’s obviously not true. Our environment (including the foods we have access to) differs in many respects from that in which our prehistoric ancestors lived in. Moreover, we’re not identical to our ancestors with respects to the way we live our lives or the way our bodies function.
If you are healthy, lead a very healthy lifestyle, spend a lot of time in the sun, and regularly eat fatty fish, then chances are you don’t have to supplement at all; however, if you’re sick, don’t lead a healthy lifestyle, spend little time in the sun, and/or rarely eat fatty fish, then you may want to consider adding certain types of supplements to your diet, such as vitamin D pills and/or fish oil.
In other words, health status and lifestyle have to be taken into account when it is to be decided whether an individual can benefit from using dietary supplements or not.
In my experience, the reality rarely lives up to the hype when it comes to nutritional supplementation. People are tricked by supplement manufacturers and sponsored, good-looking athletes and fitness competitors into thinking that x, y, and z supplement will help them attain their dream physique. When they proceed to buy and use these supplements, they are let down by their lack of results.
Nevertheless, few, if any, lose faith in the supplement industry. This is undoubtedly largely because the idea that “special” food products and supplements are required to tap into the full potential of the human body is deeply ingrained into the public’s mind, in particular the minds of many fitness enthusiasts. Instead of thinking that there’s something wrong with how we as a society approach fitness and health, many people who are let down by a dietary supplement just jump to the next supplement, and then the next, and so on, constantly looking for that magic bullet that will get them the results they are hoping for.
I think we all would be wise to think twice before we add pills, powders, vitamin drinks, and so forth to our nutritional menu. I don’t dispute the fact that we live in a very different environment than our ancestors and that some modern humans could therefore benefit from using certain forms of nutritional supplements (e.g., supplements containing vitamin D and omega-3); however, I very much question the idea that we need to use several different types of supplements and/or consume functional foods in order to attain good health and peak athletic performance. Actually, I would argue that doing so will undermine our health, not enhance it.
Unfortunately, the negative attributes of dietary supplements receive much less attention than the positive ones, in large part because supplement manufacturers and sponsored athletes, as well as many scientific researchers, focus on and highlight the potential benefits of using dietary supplements, while largely ignoring any potential risks.