Are Supplements Really Needed for Optimal Health?

supplementsLooking back on my most recent series of articles on nootropic supplementation for golf, I decided that it would be pertinent to discuss the use of supplements, in general, and whether they are necessary or even safe.  In retrospect, I probably should have posted this piece prior to the nootropic series of posts but better late than never right?

This post will focus on some general considerations surrounding supplement use, including thoughts about vitamin and mineral competition, synergistic effects, confusing scientific evidence, and unidentified compounds in food.

In considering whether to use supplements (please consult your medical practitioner first) here are some things that should be considered as part of your decision.

Supplements & Micronutrient Competition

It is well known that certain vitamins and minerals compete with, block absorption of, or even enhance absorption of other vitamins and minerals (1, 2).  The problem that can arise here is that if you take multiple vitamin and mineral supplements, possibly in doses higher than recommended, you may: 1.) Cause competition between two or more micronutrients possibly even leading to deficiency in said micronutrients due to reduced absorption, 2.) Cause excess absorption of one or more micronutrients due to increased absorption of one micronutrient caused by another micronutrient supplement taken, 3.) Not absorb most of the micronutrients in your supplements due to competition between ingredients and supplements (or lack of a properly functioning digestive system), ultimately wasting your money.

Micronutrient Synergistic Effect

Vitamins and minerals are not found in isolated forms in natural foods sources.  From an evolutionary perspective, humans have been eating real, whole foods ever since the first homo sapiens appeared on earth (via evolution if you did not pick up on that) approximately 200, 000 years ago.  The key here is that whole foods contain multiple vitamins and minerals in differing amounts from one food to the next.  With such a long history of eating whole foods, the human species is likely adapted to eating combinations of vitamins and minerals as contained in real foods, not specific isolated micronutrients.  While some micronutrients may compete with each other for absorption many have a combined, beneficial, synergistic actions over and above the benefits from each micronutrient on their own (3).  Come to think of it, a likely reason for the natural competition between some micronutrients may in fact be to limit toxicity of over consumption of micronutrients from whole foods sources.  Can we think of this as a natural protective mechanism?? Just a thought.  Regardless, at the end of the day, the natural content of nutrients in food is likely our best bet for effectively balancing the competitive and synergistic effects of micronutrients.

Unidentified Compounds of Food

As good as modern science may be, and as many discoveries it has made regarding food and health, we are just at the beginning of this scientific journey.  For all the vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and zoochemicals we have discovered in foods, there are vast numbers of other components of food we have yet to discover, or yet to investigate the possible beneficial actions of.  That being said, it is clear that when supplements are chosen over whole foods, not only do we miss out on things like the synergistic effects of micronutrients contained together in real foods, we are also missing out on the possible beneficial actions of the undiscovered compounds they contain.

The key point here is to eat a variety of vegetables, meats, and fruits to ensure a wide range of vitamin, mineral, phytochemical, zoochemical, and undiscovered compound intake.

Confusing Scientific Evidence on Supplements

While the above facts may be enough for some of us to nix chronic supplement use and focus instead on real foods, the science on supplement use is also confusing.  Although some studies boast the benefits of supplements, other evidence is coming to light that the use of supplements may actually increase the risk of mortality, micronutrient toxicity, and even cancer (4, 5).

Conclusion on Supplements

At the end of the day, my general opinion is that if we have our diets and lifestyle in check, then supplements should not be necessary for optimal health.  However, this is not always an easy task as there are many modern life factors that can interfere with ideal diet and lifestyle and thus, influence whether supplementation may actually be beneficial.  In our current society we are so far removed from our evolutionary environment that there is no doubt some level of trade off with our health (ie. chronic job stress, sedentary jobs, chemical foods, etc.) leading to the possibility that certain supplements may support our health in specific situations.  Here are some factors to consider, with the help of your health care practitioner, in determining whether specific supplementation may be necessary to reach optimal health:


  • Do you eat a whole food, low toxin diet?
  • Do you eat sufficient vegetables, meat, fruit, and appropriate fats to intake the required amounts of micronutrients your body requires (you may be surprised at how much food this actually takes).
  • Do you have an appropriate Omega 6:3 ratio in your diet
  • Do you avoid foods you are sensitive to…do you even know if you have food sensitivities.

Medical Conditions

  • Do you have a medical condition of some kind (ie. seasonal allergies, IBS, diabetes, etc.)


  • Do you get enough movement and exercise in your daily life?
  • Do you have low levels of stress, or have sufficient stress control strategies (meditation, yoga, exercise, frame of mind, life view, etc)

Even if some of the above factors are not where they should be, it doesn’t mean supplementation is required or even the best course of action for optimal health.  Ultimately, before using supplements, a diet and lifestyle change is the first step in moving towards better health, supplementation consideration should be secondary, or at least temporary in combination with a diet and lifestyle change.

While there may be certain situations appropriate for specific, targeted supplement use, it light of the above, it appears that the best approach to support optimal health is to eat sufficient amounts and variety of real, whole foods.


The Barefoot Golfer


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