Image of Fish Oil Capsules

The Secret to Health, Longevity and Happiness?

Image courtesy of Kittikun Atsawintarangkul / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It seems every blogger I follow is currently promoting Examine.com’s Supplement Goals Reference Guide, even those that generally don’t promote supplements.

Credit where credit is due, Seth Orwell and the team have certainly put the work in, both in the production of their website and the book, and their efforts to promote it. My little blog is small fry in the scheme of things, but they still took the time to contact me and ask if I’d promote their book.

Personally, however, I decided to decline their offer, as I’m still with Krista over at Stumptious as to what you should do with supplements… (sorry mum), and here’s why:

1) They Will Not Improve Your Life

There are lots of claims made for various supplements, meal replacements, and performance aids – product x will reduce that, increase this, etc, etc.

Now, I could spend hours looking into the science behind all these individual claims, but frankly, I don’t really give a damn!

To me, the the only questions worth asking should be:

  • Will it increase longevity?
  • Will it improve quality or life/happiness?

I would possibly add, “What impact does it have on other people/the planet”, though this really feeds back into question number 2, as if it had a negative impact, I wouldn’t really be very happy about it.

To my knowledge, there are no supplements that have been shown to reliably have a positive effect on either.

On the contrary, all the big, longer term studies of vitamin and mineral supplementation at best show no effect on longevity, at worst show reductions!

As the majority of supplements are manufactured in factories, using chemical processes, in countries with poor working standards, packaged in plastic, and transported thousands of miles, you can be willing to bet there not having an overly positive effect on the rest of the planet and its inhabitants.

2) Nutrients Are Essential, Not Supplements

Whenever people jump to the defence/promotion of supplements, they invariably begin touting the importance of the nutrients contained within.

I am not contesting that vitamin D, omega 3, magnesium or any other essential nutrient is important for health, nor that a deficiency would be seriously bad news. What I am questioning is whether a supplement is either necessary, or in any way superior, to obtaining those nutrients by other means.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Luddite, and I don’t have anything against the concept of supplements: I don’t subscribe to the logical fallacy that everything natural is good, and everything man made is bad.

Perhaps one day we will get to the point where we no longer need to eat – everything you need will come in the form of a pill or shake, and we’ll never have to eat tasty, delicious, sustainable, locally produced food ever again… We can but dream.

We are still, however, a long way off that point yet, unfortunately. For example, although fish oil capsules showed early promise, they’ve simply not lived up to expectations. Yes, omega 3 fats are essential, but eating them in isolation is no substitute for eating the entire fish.

3) Supplements Enable Sub-Optimal Choices

If you spend 90% of your time indoors, eat a nutrient deficient diet of processed junk, and fail to cope with stress resulting in poor sleep patterns, taking vitamin D supplements, vitamins, minerals and omega 3, and sleep aids, will no doubt make you feel better, and may possibly improve your life.

Is this really the best option, however? Or are they just enabling you to continue making poor lifestyle decisions?

Personally, I’d rather ensure I spend enough time outdoors to produce optimal levels of vitamin D, as spending time outdoors, particularly in nature, has many other additional benefits on top of simply preventing cancer and rickets.

I’d rather eat a varied and nutritious whole food diet than pop pills – not only are real foods consistently shown to be greater than the sum of their parts, they taste great, and can be produced locally and sustainably.

I’d rather sleep like a baby, because I’m happy and content with life, not because I’ve had to knock myself out with some dubious concoction because my head is swirling with fears and worries.

4) Supplements: They don’t do exactly what they say on the tin, and may not even contain what they say on the tin!

So, the claims for supplements are at best over-blown and over-hyped, and invariably any benefit claimed can be obtained in a cheaper, more sustainable, more complete, tastier package in the form of real food or time in the fresh air.

But creatine is harmless, you might say, and I don’t really care about the conditions of the factory workers, where the plastic tub might end up once I’ve thrown it away, or the chemicals and fossil fuels used in its production, and it might, possibly, if I’m lucky, help me do the occasional extra rep, which in turn might help me build muscle that little bit faster, which will make me really really happy and fulfilled in life.

Well go for it my friend, but before you do, ask yourself, can you be certain it’s actually creatine in that tub?

The supplement industry is notoriously unregulated, and there have been numerous cases of widely available sports supplements being found to contain illegal and often dangerous chemicals not listed on the label (though I suppose on the bright side at least some of these might actually work).

A new report from Canada which tested 44 different “herbal products”, found less than half to actually contain any trace of the herb it was claiming to be made from on the label.

Worse yet, many use unlabelled fillers such as wheat and soy which can cause reactions, unlabelled herbs and chemicals which can have severe side effects, and even heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic!

(NB – In the interests of objectivity, and as someone is sure to point it out, it should be noted that even the whole foods industry is not exempt from unscrupulous individuals making false claims on labels. There have been numerous cases of cheap vegetable oils being passed of as extra virgin olive oil, battery farm eggs as free range eggs, pesticide laden fruit and veg as organic. This is much rarer however, easier to spot, and you don’t really have the option of not eating anything at all just in case it’s not really what it purports to be, so there’s little point in fretting over it).

One Possible Caveat

The one possible caveat to my anti-supplement stance could be for dark skinned people living at northern latitudes working long hours indoors.

I still wouldn’t recommend indiscriminate guzzling of vitamin D tablets however.

My first recourse would be to get as much sun exposure as possible, coupled with plenty of vitamin D rich foods such as free range pork products, oily fish, grass fed butter and so on.

If despite this, you still think or feel you may be deficient in vitamin D, get your levels tested.

If your levels do prove to be low, then in this case temporary vitamin D supplementation would probably be wise, while you read the 4 Hour Work Week and plan your escape to somewhere nearer the equator…

Thanks for reading, I hope you found this post of interest. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments below, or feel free to tweet me at @Simon_Whyatt

12 comments

  1. Hello Moshe,

    Hey now! My name is Sol.

    I have no problem with not being a fan of supplements (hey, each their own right?), but I wanted to point out a few quick things:

    1. Life Improvement.

    Longevity is a simple quantitative factor, and does not take quality of life into consideration.

    Still, two things to consider:

    a) Supplements for general-wellbeing are quite overrated. Still, vitamin D has been proven to have a host of benefits, including decreasing falls for the elderly (a major issue). You can see those studies here: http://examine.com/show_rubric_effect.php?id=44&effect=Risk%20of%20Falls&selection=all – definitely a qualititive change
    b) Targeted supplementation is a gold-mind, and what we espouse. Ask any doctor who deals with diabetics what htey think of berberine. What a doctor who deals with menopausal woman what they think of VAC. Ginger for nausea. Milk thistle for liver health. Etc.

    2+3. Essential and Sub-Optimal Diet.

    Don’t disagree. Listen to any podcast I’ve been on, and the #1 supplement I always recommend is sleep. Still, using my above example, you are never going to get berberine via diet. Aspirin itself was basically a supplement. No need to not have both in line!

    4. Liars

    Yikes, a big issue. ConsumerLab.com does a solid job of looking into this.

    Cheers!

    1. Hi Sol,

      Thanks for the reply (though my names not Moshe, it’s Simon, possibly you’re confusing me with the creator of Feldenkrais, but I digress, what’s in a name anyway).

      1) “Longevity is a simple quantitative factor, and does not take quality of life into consideration.”

      You don’t say – that’s just about the entire focus of this website, and the major point of this article. Perhaps you missed it as you were too busy looking for ways to contest the post without actually reading it properly.

      2) “Still, vitamin D has been proven to have a host of benefits”

      Again, in the article I address the fact that vitamin D, along with all the other essential nutrients, are of course essential. This doesn’t mean you have to take supplements however, you can get them from natural sources.

      3) “Ask any doctor who deals with diabetics what htey think of berberine…you are never going to get berberine via diet. Aspirin itself was basically a supplement.”

      Rather than ask a doctor, I’d look to well controlled scientific studies which test its efficacy. Such studies have been conducted, and it does indeed seem to be a very effective short term treatment for people with type II diabetes. Chances are, as it is actually effective (in the right population), it will at some point be granted classification as a drug, like asprin, which is, as you indirectly pointed out, no longer a supplement, as it actually works.

      Either way, as I don’t have type II diabetes, and am unlikely to develop it due to my diet and lifestyle practices, I don’t really give a monkeys that I’m not going to find berberine in my diet.

      4) “ConsumerLab.com does a solid job of looking into this.”

      Or, I could just save myself a lot of time, hassle and money and not bother.

      NB – Kudos again for your mighty web powers of jumping all over this so quickly! Is there a supplement for that?

      1. I’ll ignore your snark, and say that:

        1. We’re pragmatic, not idealistic. People outside of the tropics will be hard-pressed to ever hit 1000 IU+/day of vitamin D.

        2. Science tends to go short term->long term->TM (fish oil -> Lovaza). It was convenient to ignore all my other examples too. They are all backed by double-blind studies. If you also read what we espouse, we never ever recommend blind supplementation – we *always * say targeted supplementation. So don’t take berberine (or my other examples), but to be dismissive of it is .. well, that seems to be the opposite of focusing on quality of life.

        1. I’d again suggest you actually read the article I wrote, rather than simply scanning it looking for arguments to try and counter, and thereby missing the entire point. That might make a bit less “snarky”.

          I also didn’t “ignore all your examples”, but rather gave an all encompassing answer highlighting the fact that while nutritional supplements such as vit D, fish oil, vitamins and minerals can have positive effects. You can get the same positive effects, and more, by eating real food.

          There is no reason to believe that light skinned people would struggle to get enough vitamin D outside of the tropics, we evolved fair pigmentation for just this. I did address in the original article that the one exception for this rule could be dark skinned people living at northern latitudes, though even then it is not cut and dry.

          An interesting question which you do raise, is where to draw the line between supplementation and medication/drugs, however.

          Asprin, for example is most definitely a medication.

          Can berberine, a compound not found in the diet, and prescribed for individuals with a specific medical condition really be termed a supplement?

          Also, on the subject of berberine, the research does seem to indicate it is most useful for “badly managed” type II diabetes – is it again just enabling poor choices?

          1. Aspirin is rubbish-Shane Ellison has some good stuff on Aspirin and how it causes ulcers, blocks nutrient absorption amongst other issues-so no it’s not some wonder medication as you tout.

          2. Hi Damien,

            Thanks for your comments, though I’m not sure who exactly they’re aimed at?

            I most certainly don’t “tout Asprin as a wonder medication” – I personally don’t take any pain killers, as, in a similar way to which people can use supplements to enable suboptimal behaviour, they tend to do the same. If you’re getting headaches, it’s much better to find the route cause, rather than just mask the symptom. I simply pointed out to Sol in the comments that Asprin is not a supplement.

            With regards to Vitamin C, perhaps Poliquin’s or Phil Richards versions are superior in quality to Lidl, who knows. Regardless, there is still no evidence whatsoever that there is any benefit from taking them. Why not grow some strawberry plants. Gardening can be very therapeutic, and the strawberries will be free and tasty, unlike ridiculously over priced Poliquin supplements…

  2. Furthermore-most of your so-called population studies on vitamins or minerals use questionnaires they do not control the quality of said supplements-as you admit most are crap, and made in China. Vitamin C from Lidl is not the same as Poliquin’s or Phil Richards.

    1. Hey Danny, great thanks, all good over here.

      I am certainly familiar with Mr Asprey. Pseudoscientist of the highest order IMHO I’m afraid.

      Not sure if he really drinks his own cool-aid, or just very good at cherry picking bad science to support products which he sells!

      My tips is to actually follow the links to the “studies” he uses to support his articles and read them. Invariably they are weaker than a day old kitten.

      Still doing much running? Been hitting the trails big time over here, planning a 100k mountain ultra next year if you fancy a trip?

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