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Nutrition Column

Supplementation versus healthy food: what is the key?

Studies prove it's the food and not the nutrient that provides the health benefits.

Study after study on individual antioxidants prove that the health benefits of fruits and vegetables comes from eating a plant-based diet rather than extracting the nutrients out of them and putting them in supplements.

In the 22,000 subject Physician's Health Study, the 20,000 person Heart Protection Study, the 18,000 subjects CARET study, and the 40,000 person Women's Health Study the results were the same. No benefit in terms of decreased disease risk or incidence was observed when supplement users were compared to placebo controls.

In fact, in the HOPE-TOO trial of 7,000 people taking either 400 IU of vitamin E or a placebo who were followed for 7 years, the vitamin E takers had a 13 percent higher risk of heart failure and no lower rate of cancer. In a 1994 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine similar findings were reported. 29,000 Finnish male smokers were followed for 5 to 8 years and lung cancer rates were 18 percent higher in the beta-carotene takers. These results actually raise the question of whether taking individual supplements raises disease risk.

Whether its vitamin E, beta-carotene, vitamin C, or other antioxidants used in the study no supportive evidence exists as to the nutrient providing a health benefit when taken in supplemental form. The evidence to support antioxidant use comes from dietary patterns and disease rates in groups who ate diets high in fruits and vegetables. Vegetarians and those who follow plant-based, nutrient and fiber rich diets are the ones with lower disease rates.

It may be that the benefit from fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based foods comes from the other phytonutrients in the diet, the interaction of the micronutrients as a whole, or the fiber in the plants rather than the micronutrients. Or it may simply be that people who are eating fruits and vegetables are eating less harmful nutrients such as saturated fats than those who don't eat a plant-based diet.

Whatever the case, these large clinical trials support eating a plant-based diet rather than taking individual nutrients to provide a nutritious diet and prevent disease.

Written by Dr. Sternlicht for on 11.26.06