A disturbing trend has been allowed to spread like cancer within the health and fitness community over the most recent decades. The metastatic process of this malignant tumor is fueled by the belief that it’s not sufficient to just eat real, whole foods. To really be able to achieve good health and peak athletic performance, you also have to include various types of powders, pills, and “special foods” in your nutritional regimen.
Supplement manufacturers and large food companies put a lot of effort and resources into spreading this belief out to as many people as possible, as well as solidifying its foundations. They sponsor athletes and bodybuilders, who are given money and supplements in return for promoting various nutritional products; they fund research studies, many of which are deliberately designed and carried out with the purpose of showing that the consumption of functional foods confers various health benefits; and they make the case that eating real, unprocessed food simply isn’t enough to attain optimal nutritional status.
I think it’s long past time that efforts are put into stopping this disaster.
What exactly are functional foods?
There is no universally accepted definition of functional food. Some dictionaries will tell you that it’s food that has been modified or fortified by man; others will say that it’s food that possesses unique health properties; and yet others will say that it’s food that delivers benefits beyond basic nutrition.
Personally, I tend to use the term functional food to refer to any “man-made” nutritional product or modified food that’s being promoted as something that will improve health, body composition, and/or athletic performance. This is also the definition I adhere to in this article. Under this definition, all dietary supplements, vitamin-fortified beverages, Paleo bars, energy drinks, and so forth can be considered functional foods. Basically, anything that’s viewed as a health product, but that isn’t a “real” food such a banana, apple, or piece of meat.
Why change a winning team?
Throughout 99.99% of our evolutionary history, protein bars, probiotic-enriched beverages, energy drinks, and other so-called functional food products didn’t exist. Our ancestors had to make do with what nature produced; they didn’t have access to all of the fancy nutritional products that line the shelves of health food stores and supermarkets today. The nutritional team they had to put their faith in was exclusively composed of real, minimally processed food.
Did their health deteriorate as a result of them not having access to foods that have been modified by man? No… It obviously didn’t. On the contrary; the nutritional status of hunter-gatherers and other traditional people tends to be much better than that of contemporary humans, including that of fitness aficionados who stuff themselves with vitamin pills, protein powders, and energy bars (1, 2, 3).
By itself, this doesn’t immediately lead to the conclusion that we – 21st century humans – would be best off avoiding all supplements and modified foods, as there are obviously many possible confounders that could blur the above relationships. Moreover, as I’m sure a lot of readers are eager to point out, the lifestyle of the modern man differs markedly from that of the Paleolithic man, and the foods we have access to today differ from the types of foods that our ancient forebears consumed.
Over the past millennia, in particular the most recent centuries, we’ve damaged the soil in which we grow our food, we’ve polluted our world, we’ve gradually disconnected ourselves from nature, and we’ve changed the composition of the food we eat via artificial selection and the innovation of new food production systems. I often come across people who bring up these changes as support for their position that it’s no longer sufficient to eat just real, unprocessed food.
According to them, modern food is depleted of vitamins, minerals, and many other nutrients. Moreover, they argue that the lifestyle of the modern man leaves him susceptible to nutritional deficiencies. For those reasons, they say we would be wise to give our diets a little boost by adding some vitamins pills, fortified food products, and other man-made products into them.
While there is some truth to these notions, there’s also a lot of untruth. Yes, the food we eat today is different from the food our ancient forebears ate. Also, it’s obviously true that we no longer live as hunter-gatherers. However, that doesn’t mean that we need to stuff ourselves with various pills and protein powders to get all the nutrients we need to operate at peak capacity.
The reality is that a balanced, whole foods diet, coupled with a prudent lifestyle, will provide you with pretty much everything you need. If you spend little time in the sun and don’t eat much fatty fish, you may benefit from taking some extra vitamin D and omega-3, but that’s pretty much it.
But what about those folks who don’t follow a healthy diet and lifestyle; wouldn’t they benefit from jumping on the functional food train? I would argue that the answer to this question is, in most instances, no.
Some people seem to be under the belief that they can compensate for a poor diet by taking vitamin pills, drinking protein shakes, and consuming various fortified food products. The problem with this strategy is that while functional foods may bring some important nutrients into your system, they are likely doing you some harm as well. Typically, the costs outweigh the benefits…
The food that nature produces agrees better with the human physiology than the food that we design ourselves
Over the years, I’ve written several comprehensive articles on various dietary supplements and functional food products here on the site. I’ve looked into the pros and cons of using whey protein powder, vitamin and mineral pills, probiotics, and many other supplements. If you’ve read some of those articles, you’ve undoubtedly picked up on the fact that most dietary supplements do more harm than good.
Everyone can find a couple of studies that seem to show that one or more of the above supplements are beneficial. However, if we take a closer look at the strengths and weaknesses of these studies and then proceed to examine the evidence as whole – the evolutionary evidence, biological mechanisms, clinical research, etc. – it usually becomes clear that the cons of using the supplement(s) in question outweigh the pros.
How can this be? Why do so many man-made, nutritional products harm our health? To find a good answer to this question, we have to take out and put on our evolutionary glasses…
The human genetic make-up was shaped in the environments of the past. Food has always been an essential part of our milieu. Like all other organisms, we need energy to survive. Nutrition isn’t just important for survival though; it also greatly affects evolutionary processes. For example, when more meat was introduced into the hominin diet some 2.5 million years ago, the human body started to change: The brain grew larger, the large intestine got smaller, and subtle shifts in digestive and metabolic functions occurred. These changes occurred largely as a result of natural selection acting upon the human genome.
That dietary shift changed the physical requirements of the human body. Suddenly, a very large colon, capable of processing a lot of hard-to-digest plant foods was not required anymore. Instead, it became important to possess a digestive machinery that is capable of safely and effectively digest and utilize the nutrients found in meat.
Why is this important in the context of functional foods you may ask? It’s important because it highlights the role food has played in shaping the biological system that is the human body. Over time, many similar changes to the ones described above have occurred.
The types of foods that were a part of the ancestral environments in which the human genome evolved over millions of years contributed to shaping the human metabolic machinery and digestive system. The hormonal response and intraluminal concentration of nutrients that are produced by those ancestral foods fall within the range of what the human body is designed to cope with. The same cannot be said for man-made, modern foods, in particular those that contains very high concentrations of just one or a couple of nutrients.
The main problem with functional foods such as vitamin-fortified beverages, energy drinks, and protein bars is that they have nutrient composition that differs markedly from that of real, whole food. They contain abnormally high concentrations of some nutrients or substances and are built up of a mixture of ingredients that don’t normally occur together. Real food, which hasn’t been modified by man, on the other hand, contains a balanced proportion of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. You can’t find a real, whole food that has a protein density as high as that of protein powders or a nutrient configuration that looks anything like that of a sports drink.
When viewed from the perspective of the digestive and metabolic machinery of the human body, the structure of many functional foods is foreign and weird. Hence, it’s not surprising that a growing body of evidence shows that a long list of functional food products and dietary supplements disturb physiologic processes, adversely affect hormone status, perturb the gut microbiota, and cause nutritional imbalances (4, 5, 6, 7).
The bottom line
The natural, living world that we see around us today was shaped by evolutionary forces over billions of years. No organism evolves in isolation. We’re all part of a larger biological system. This is important to remember when discussing nutrition and health, because it suggests that it may be ill-advised to isolate and modify some components of nature and then proceed to combine them into food products that are markedly different from the types of foods that were a part of humans’ past nutritional environments.
A real, whole food such as an apple, an egg, or a slice of meat is composed of a long list of different substances that are all part of a larger network. If we go in and modify this network, taking out or changing the concentrations of one or more of its constituents, the initial balance of the system is lost and we end up with a product that will likely elicit some adverse health effects upon consumption.