We are in a news-hungry world, with headlines available 24 hours a day. As a child, I had only the 10 o’clock news and the newspaper. Even that seemed like too much! Nutrition headlines are no exception to information overload, and can fall to the trap of click bait. Their are SO many sensationalized topics with little basis in true health. I approach health headlines and evaluate them from a functional nutrition perspective.
This post is written to help you understand headlines and how functional nutrition may be your best navigation tool for health.
Why Functional Nutrition and Functional Medicine?
Not all nutrition professionals are the same. As a functional nutritionist, I approach things from the single most important lens of healthcare: improving an individual’s vitality. Functional nutrition is a supportive form of functional medicine that focuses on food and nutrients to help the person heal and become functional again.
You can think of functional nutrition like a science-based holistic health care. It is the food is medicine approach.
I also help people evaluate headlines based on the headline’s ability to help people feel better and function better. These headlines can be more challenging to find!
Balanced nutrition and sound advice often doesn’t grab the eyes of the viewer. Its competition is outlandish politics and constant bombardment of the lifestyles of famous people.
If nutrition headlines ever imply a one-size-fits-all approach, toss that headline. The functional nutrition approach considers an individuals biochemical individuality. With healing in mind, we create a unique and feasible plan and put it to action.
Headlines Matter for Your Health
When it comes to health, nutrition headlines can do more harm than good.
Headlines seem to have no qualms at making big claims such as “throw your vitamins away” and Enough is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements [R].
Is this form of journalism accurate? And more importantly, does it do more harm than good? Let’s take a look at what the headlines are really presenting.
Functional Nutrition Perspective on Headlines
Here is an example of faulty journalism. A particular piece of news, about the Physician’s Health Study, was splashed on every news page a couple years ago. This study was evaluating a research study indicating that multivitamins don’t help people.
What did the research really look at?
Diet and lifestyle can really throw numbers off! The people who were examined in the headlines already had a very high nutrient intake anyway. They were looking at doctors after all. If anyone can afford to eat well, it’s them.
People with high nutrient intake don’t benefit from supplements. Huh. And they didn’t have many health issues either. What a weird study, first and foremost, and even weirder, it grabbed national headlines.
This headline even had some “nutrition experts” and doctors convinced. I know because I dealt with the fall out of it.
However, the Physician’s Health Study, published more recently, found that multivitamin and mineral use reduced chances of fatal heart attacks and requirements for additional heart stents. Where was the news when THIS study got published? Crickets.
The key was in the duration of study. The one with positive results of vitamins looked at a lot longer-term data.
Makes a functional nutrition specialist like me a little disheartened. People deserve to know how to get good supplements.
Can Supplement Headlines Do More Harm than Good?
When we start seeing food as medicine and nutrients as medicine, we start to understand the bigger picture.
There are lots of people who benefit from a vitamins, minerals, and other supplements.
Who are these people?
- The average American eating the Standard American diet.
- Elderly who no longer eat well.
- People with heart disease and heart-related complications [R].
- People on medications that rob the body of nutrients. The list is long, including:
- Mood stabilizers (anticonvulsants)
- Cholesterol medications
- Stomach medications
- Blood pressure medicines
- Water pills
- Many more
- Obesity: one pound of fat requires an extra MILE of blood vessel supply and accordingly, more nutrients.
- No wonder patients who are overweight and obese get tired. They are getting robbed of the nutrients their bodies need in order to be in Build mode and then Maintain mode. They often don’t stand a fighting chance of wellness and energy without supplements!
- Alcohol intake: even casual, but routine alcoholic beverages deplete you of nutrients.
- Soils are increasingly deprived of minerals that we need to thrive.
- Lack of sun and use of sunscreen and epidemic vitamin D deficiency rates (vitamin D3 is good for so many things).
From a functional nutrition standpoint, the right supplements can really help any of the people I listed above.
Why are the vitamin headlines partially right?
- Artificial vitamins, such as folic acid and synthetic vitamin E at high doses indeed may long term be bad for you.
- The synthetic vitamins also often have artificial food dyes and questionable add-ins like preservatives and binders. Read my folate versus folic acid post for more information.
- Even brands with the name “nature” or “natural” in the title may not be good quality.
Verdict: These headlines definitely do more harm than good. ALWAYS aim to get natural supplements when possible.
Functional nutritionists, like me, can help guide you through making good decisions about supplements.
Functional Nutrition Research Approaches
Functional nutrition aims to make people feel better. How? By meeting ALL their needs to help them feel better. Nutrition researchers need to treat vitamins like nutrients, not drugs.
Research is difficult and food and nutrition is complex. When reviewing research, we must ask ourselves a number of important questions. I will help guide you how I do that.
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Gluten and dairy sensitivities
- Gut dysbiosis
- Autoimmune illness
Problems of Current Nutrition Research Models
Unfortunately, the modern research model is based exclusively on drugs and the bias of this form of research is daunting.
We are supposed to design all trials of nutrients to look like drugs. Uh oh- this doesn’t work.
This is what makes functional nutrition research so difficult. Imagine this. Research projects try to answer one simple question and answer it the most straightforward way possible.
To do this, researchers “cherry pick” the people (or animals or cells) to look as close to identical to each other as possible.
Then, researchers often isolate out ONE teeny tiny compound, drug, nutrient or otherwise. They then measure ONE teeny tiny variable. What if they pick the wrong variable? They often do.
They then try to apply this very reductionist formula to the whole population. Put it all together and its VERY easy to manipulate this research in a way that may look the way their bias prefers it to look.
Guess what? This doesn’t work out very well very often for food or nutrients.
Why? Nutrients and food compounds are complex and symbiotic with other nutrients. A single meal can have 1000 different compounds in it!
After many years of clinical practice and research and even self-experimentation I have learned this:
I would much rather take a single patient experience and listen to the patient with good follow up. I will then build on that clinical knowledge to help others.
The basis of functional nutrition is meeting an individual’s needs to get to the root cause of their illness.
Where is the individual assessment in research?
Research focuses on the average, or the mean. What if you fall outside that mean? The odds are, you do.
Even the best of research is minimally applicable to you, the individual.
Important Nutrition Headline Considerations
The topics that really matter to me as a functional nutritionist and researcher after 18 years are these:
- Did the research focus on making people feel better?
- Did the research look at a topic that is globally applicable? Or did they falsely talk about it this way?
- Were the people being researched the right group of focus?
Many research projects are highly flawed, nutrition, pharmaceutical, and otherwise. Often the ones making the headlines are some of the most flawed.
Many doctors, who conduct nutrition research, were never trained in nutrition.
How to Evaluate the Nutrition Headlines
When reading the headlines, here are a many things I like to think about:
- Are they looking only at death rates? Spoiler alert: almost nothing changes death rate. This is inherently biased.
- Are they making broad, sweeping claims?
- What were they measuring?
- Who were they measuring it in?
- Did this thing they measured make sense to measure in this particular group?
- Is someone gaining money by manipulating headlines and research projects?
- Big Pharma?
- Big Food?
- Is there money to lose by big companies if someone would take these vitamins or supplements?
- this is often true
- Is the research based on associations rather than clinical trials?
- How I tell: if they say “related to or increased risk” this does not mean cause and effect. It is like saying that “white houses are more likely to catch fire”, which might be an incidental finding.
- What are the odds that vitamins pose a risk? for real?
- Were they using a high quality supplement in their analysis?
If the headlines fail to answer any of the above questions and concerns, or seem to make vast claims, I usually recommend that you dig deeper. You can click the link to the research they are citing and you can often find these details.
What are direct risks of vitamin and mineral supplements?
The headlines made it seem big: 23,000 Emergency Room visits due to supplements. Why was this not very accurate? They included diet aids supplements and detox supplements, which made up the vast majority of supplement ER admissions (35% of these 23,000 were diet and energy pills). They included laxatives and all forms of supplements in this 23,000.
Around 3500 ER visits a year for total vitamins and minerals, and most of these ER visits were because the vitamins got “stuck” in the esophagus by elderly. This largely is preventable by taking a smaller dose, easier to swallow gelcap.
In comparison, accidental intake of opiate drugs, even by young children, far exceeds this amount and opiate intake ER admissions for adults is epidemic! This is where ER deaths occur due to pills, not vitamins.
The truth is this (and never mentioned in the headlines): most admissions related to supplements are related to diet and exercise enhancement supplements, not vitamins and minerals.
Never do the studies look at quality of the supplement or form.
Headlines also fail to look at how many ER visits good quality supplements prevented (it is a lot).
Do Supplements Reduce Healthcare Costs?
Where were the headlines when THIS study got published?
Omega 3 supplements reduced fatal heart attacks very significantly (52 fewer deaths per 100,000 heart attacks). This translated to $16,340 healthcare savings per heart attack case [R].
If every woman with osteoporosis supplemented the appropriate amount and type of magnesium, $1 billion dollars per year would be saved in avoidable hospital costs [R].
An additional $2 billion per year would be saved if these same women took calcium and vitamin D3.
Think magnesium might be right for you? Consider this:
Conservative research states that half of Americans don’t eat enough magnesium [R].
Where to buy high-quality supplements?
I’m here to help. Rather than generic responses you might get in your 5 minute visit with your practitioner, find a well-educated dietitian that is well-versed in supplements, drug-nutrient interactions and more (not all are specialists in this).
Natural matters. Form matters. There are thousands of supplements on the market, so find the right one for you. If you feel bad when taking it, odds are, it’s not the right one for you.
My marker of a good supplement is it’s magnesium tolerability. We almost all need more, yet magnesium can be very difficult to take.
Your standard multiple vitamin available at retail stores have magnesium (magnesium oxide) that has about a 4% absorption rate. You guessed it: the rest get pooped out, and may cause diarrhea. Most likely, you will stop taking them because of undesired side effects.
Important Supplement Considerations
- Take supplements with food for improved absorption
- They are food-derived.
- You will absorb them better if you take them three times daily rather than once daily all at once.
- They are formulated in lower dose per gelcap for better absorption and to be easy on the stomach.
- They contain enzymes that enhance absorption.
- The Lifelong Vitality Pack is generally recognized as safe and made with Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP certified)
Nutrition headlines can be challenging to navigate, even for healthcare professionals. You can use supplements to enhance your health if you use them properly. Seek out a functional nutritionist to get someone who is very well trained in supplements and functional medicine approaches.
The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration or any other medical body and is shared for educational purposes only. Consult your doctor or healthcare provider before making changes to your supplement regimen or lifestyle.
Heidi Moretti, MS, RD is The Healthy RD. A registered dietitian for 20 years, has a passion for functional nutrition and natural medicine. Has researched supplements and plants as medicine throughout her career. Loves helping people gain function and vitality by tackling the root causes of illness.