Sunday, April 26, 2009

Understanding (?) “Supplements”

As a vegetarian, people are constantly asking me what kind of "supplements" I take. I grin meekly and try to change the subject. You see, I don't understand nutritional supplements. And since personal involvement with them is almost mandatory for vegetarians and others concerned with their diets, I feel left out. I'm somehow missing the attraction.

Everyone I meet seems to think life itself depends on taking some kind of supplement, or more often many supplements, on a regular basis. Consider my friend Lee, for example. At every meal he sits down with a little plastic bag filled with various kinds of pills. He claims that these little babies, combined with his new diet (lots of protein, no starch, no fruit) have brought him back from the very brink of metabolic disaster. I guess I can't argue the point. He seems pretty much like always to me though, except that he's getting thinner every time I see him. "No fruit?" I say. "Are you sure that's healthy?"

My friend Cheryl is awfully skinny too, although she'll never admit it. She drinks bright-green fruit shakes every morning that have algae something-or-other powder in them. I'm sure they're healthy as all get out, but how much healthier does someone who would never touch a speck of meat, dairy, sugar, caffeine, alcohol, or refined anything really have to be?

I guess that raises one of the questions I have about nutritional supplements. How come the people who eat the healthiest diets and have the healthiest lifestyles are a zillion times more likely to buy these products than the folks who live on pizza and wouldn't know an antioxidant if it crawled up their shins? Why should it be us vegetarians, who already eat a diet that is by its nature steeped in vitamins and minerals, who buy all the supplements? If organic foods are so great, why do we need pills and powders and potions besides? Did the Almighty design humans wrong, or was it his/her design of food that was in error? How did people survive for the first 4 million years before the GNC store opened up in the local mall?

Okay, I know I'm getting carried away here. I know that the soils our food is grown in get worse every year, and our scientific knowledge of what our bodies need gets better.

And I know that I'm jealous too—because every time I have tried to supplement my diet with the latest recommended new and exciting vitamin or mineral I haven't felt a darned bit of difference. Nothing. Nada. Nil. It doesn't matter whether I'm megadosing (is that a word?) on vitamin C, or cramming down organic multi-vitamins the size of avocado pits. I can take a whole bottle of melatonin and still lie awake at night. I take the same echinacea and zinc cold remedies everyone else swears by, and all I manage to do is cut the length of my colds from a week to seven days.

I don't think it's because I'm doing anything wrong. I think it's me personally. My body is somehow stifled from all those years of living on beer nuts and New Coke. My special neuron-fired nutritional supplement receptors are all shot.

The other day someone recommended a new supplement that's all the rage. She claimed it would fix my lousy knees—guaranteed. I went to the natural foods grocery all excited. This time I was going to make it work.

I was only in the store a minute, though, before I realized there are two more good reasons why I don't take regular nutritional supplements. Most of the bottles of this wonder drug I looked at were replete with animal ingredients. Whoa! I thought. Maybe it isn't vegetarians who take most of this stuff after all. Or at least they aren't vegetarian when they finish taking it. The other big shocker was the sticker price. Thirty-six dollars for this tiny bottle of pills? What do they put in here? Is one of those animal ingredients Beluga caviar? Is each pill individually wrapped in mink??

I went over to the other side of the store and spent my $36 on good-old vegetarian food, and to console myself a pint of dairyless ice cream. When my knees get real, real bad I'll probably break down and buy some of that magic potion. Until then, let me pout and wallow in my cynicism. Maybe I'm not ready to understand supplements.


P.S.: Americans spend $5 billion a year on nutritional supplements. That's cheap compared to the $1 trillion we spend on non-preventive health care every year, but it's still an awful lot of money. (Heck, for that amount of money the government could buy almost a dozen screwdrivers and/or toilet seats. Even better, Hollywood could make Titanic II-The Resurrection.)

As this is being written, the Food and Drug Administration is proposing new rules that would prohibit supplements, which are not required to undergo rigorous scientific study, from claiming they can diagnose, treat, prevent or cure a disease or disease symptom. It may be time for some regulations like this, but let's not single out the nutrition industry. Hopefully the fine folks in Washington can work on the claims of the meat and dairy folks next!

Just for grins, I looked at some of the claims now being made by nutritional supplements in their advertising. It took me less than 5 minutes to find these:

• "strengthen the immune system, enhance memory and fight the effects of aging"

• "keeps your brain in shape"

• "earth's healthiest superfood"

• "fight the effects of pollution, stress, bacteria, and the passage of time"

• "provides you with what you desire most: energy"

• "achieve optimal health"

• "may serve as your body's own 'internal sunglasses'"

Wow! If all of these claims were true, why wouldn't I want to take all of these products, and many more? Wouldn't I be the healthiest guy alive? Wouldn't it be great to never have to worry about losing my sunglasses again? Of course, if I took all these products I know I'd be the busiest guy alive—just from swallowing all the pills. And at $36 a bottle, I'd probably be the poorest as well!

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