A number of studies have shown that not only is synthetic vitamin supplementation unnecessary but it may also be a potentially harmful habit altogether. Synthetic supplements do not lower rates of cancer, diabetes or cardiovascular disease, and often many of the ingredients are not even sourced from plants but from rocks. As T. Colin Campbell, PhD explains, nutrition is generally investigated, and findings interpreted in reference to the activities of individual nutrients. This reductionist approach to nutrition has been shown not to yield the same benefits that one would derive from all of the phytochemicals and stabilizing properties present in plants. The evidence is mounting in favor of the use of whole plant foods for full-spectrum nutrition over and above any form of synthetic vitamin supplementation.
There are thousands of phytochemicals present in whole plant foods that play a role in reducing the risk of chronic diseases. Whole foods have been consistently found to be protective because of the bioactive compounds contained therein, which are linked to a reduction in the risk of major killers, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. The antioxidant and anticancer activity of plant foods is derived from the additive or synergistic effects of each of these compounds in combination. Synthetic supplementation simply cannot mimic this balanced natural combination of phytochemicals present in fruits and vegetables. Now, this information has been known for more than a decade, but the marketing campaigns for these worthless, and likely harmful, synthetic supplements are still running strong and sales continue to soar.
In his paper, Untold Nutrition, Dr. Campbell elaborates on why you should consider replacing your consumption of supplements with whole foods:
Summaries, which mostly represent meta-analyses of more than 100 trials and hundreds of thousands of experimental subjects, overwhelmingly show no long-term benefit for vitamin supplements, along with worrisome findings that certain vitamins may even increase disease occurrence for diabetes (5, 9), heart disease (6, 7), and cancer (7). Supplementation with omega-3 fats also was said to have no long-term benefits, even posing increased risk for diabetes (8, 9). More worrisome is the fact that these findings, first appearing more than 10 years ago, have had no discernible effect on their market. The public desire for quick fixes through pills (i.e., reductionism) is overwhelming, especially when money can be made. The activities of individual nutrients observed in carefully controlled research conditions will not necessarily be the same, at least quantitatively, when these nutrients are consumed in the form of whole food.
Bioactivity of Phytonutrients
A 2003 study suggests that in order to improve nutrition and health, it would be in the consumer’s best interest to retrieve antioxidants from fruits, vegetables and other whole food sources instead of nutritional supplements, which do not contain the balanced combination of phytochemicals found in whole plant foods. Researchers explained, “The isolated pure compound either loses its bioactivity or may not behave the same way as the compound in whole foods.” The study further differentiates between the synergistic effects of whole foods and supplementation of individual nutrients:
We also studied the total antioxidant activity and synergy relationships between different fruit combinations, with results showing that plums had the highest antioxidant activity and that combinations of fruit resulted in greater antioxidant activity that was additive and synergistic. We proposed that the additive and synergistic effects of phytochemicals in fruit and vegetables are responsible for their potent antioxidant and anticancer activities and that the benefit of a diet rich in fruit and vegetables is attributed to the complex mixture of phytochemicals present in whole foods (31–33). This partially explains why no single antioxidant can replace the combination of natural phytochemicals in fruit and vegetables in achieving the health benefits. There are ≈8000 phytochemicals present in whole foods. These compounds differ in molecular size, polarity, and solubility, and these differences may affect the bioavailability and distribution of each phytochemical in different macromolecules, subcellular organelles, cells, organs, and tissues. Pills or tablets simply cannot mimic this balanced natural combination of phytochemicals present in fruit and vegetables.
Increased Protection by Combining Foods
In a 2013 study, we see that certain whole foods can increase the protective properties of others. Researchers found that the introduction of grapes to breast cancer cells growing in a Petri dish caused a 30% reduction in cell growth, and by adding onions separately, there was nearly a 60% suppression of cell growth. By adding half of each, cancer cell growth was reduced by 70%, showing that the combination of whole plant foods magnifies the effect greater than either food on its own. In The China Study, which is based upon data collected from Cornell University, Oxford University, and the Chinese Academy of Preventative Medicine over a span of 20 years, Dr. Campbell, and his son, Thomas M. Campbell II, MD observed notable reduced risks in cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and autoimmune diseases as well bone, kidney, eye and brain diseases in response to a whole food, plant-based diet.
The evidence is mounting that whole plant foods can be more powerful than any pharmaceutical or synthetic vitamin supplement in protecting against chronic disease. If you like the idea of living free of cancer, heart disease and a myriad of other diseases, you should consider adding as many whole plant foods to your diet as humanly possible.