Tag Archives: fish oil

Can supplements replace a healthy diet?

It’s no secret that eating lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein sources such as fish, soy, and legumes (beans) is good for you. In addition to providing carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats, these foods are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

For example, Vitamins A and C act as antioxidants, reducing cellular damage from free radicals that may lead to heart disease and some cancers. Calcium, a mineral primarily found in dairy products, is important for bone health. Fiber in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is important for digestive health and lowering blood cholesterol.

In addition to the foods we eat, we can also get these nutrients from supplements. In fact, many of us probably take vitamin and mineral supplements already. But does taking supplements mean that you don’t have to eat a variety of healthy foods? The answer is no! In my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week I provide several reasons why replacing healthy foods with supplements is not recommended.

supplement pills

First, foods contain components beyond the nutrient you wish to supplement. For example, citrus fruits are high in vitamin C, as well as other vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Taking a vitamin C supplement instead of eating an orange means that you will miss out on those other nutrients.

Second, replacing foods with supplements may lead to making less healthy food choices. For example, you may not eat as many fruits, vegetables, or whole grains if you are getting adequate fiber through supplements or other fiber-fortified foods.

The best sources of fiber in the diet are fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains; meat, dairy, and refined grains contain little fiber. You can also get fiber from supplements, which can be added to foods and beverages, and fiber-fortified foods, in which fiber is added to foods that typically wouldn’t contain fiber.

But the health benefits are greater if you get fiber through healthy foods. For breakfast you could eat a healthy whole grain cereal or you could eat a chocolate chip granola bar that is fortified with fiber. Both contain fiber, but the granola bar has a lot more sugar, making it the less healthy choice.

Another example is fish and fish oil supplements. Many fish contain high levels of a type of fat called omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy fats improve blood lipids, lower inflammation, and reduce blood clotting, leading to a lower risk of heart attack and stroke. For this reason, eating at least two servings of fish per week, especially including salmon, mackerel, and tuna, is recommended.

You could also get these healthy fats by taking fish oil or other omega-3 fatty acid supplements. However, the health benefits of this approach are not as great as actually eating fish. In fact, most of the research showing benefits of fish oils involved studying people actually eating fish; the results for fish oil supplements are less consistent. It appears that you simply don’t get the same benefit from taking a fish oil supplement as you do from eating certain types of fish.

(You can find a good low-sci explanation of this research here: Source: Fish Oil Is Hugely Popular—But Should You Take It? | TIME)

The bottom line is that a healthy diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish and other lean protein sources is the best way to get the essential nutrients you need. There is no harm in taking a multivitamin/multimineral supplement to make up for inadequacies in your diet, but you shouldn’t replace healthy foods with supplements.

Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
But it doesn't have to be that way.
What can I help you with?
 drbrianparr@gmail.com | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr


Know your nutrients: Fats

This month I am writing about the major nutrients in our diets. Last week I provided information about carbohydrates, the major energy source in our diets. This week the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard  is fats, including saturated fats, unsaturated (monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans) fats, omega-3 fats, and cholesterol.


Fats tend to get a bad reputation since they are higher in calories than carbohydrates and protein and have traditionally been associated with obesity and heart disease when eaten in excess. In reality, some dietary fats are detrimental to your health, while others have health benefits. These consequences are partly linked to the effect of the fats on the LDL (“bad”) and HDL (“good”) cholesterol in your blood and partly to other factors, including blood clotting and inflammation.

Traditionally, cholesterol and saturated fats have been linked to heart disease because they raise levels of LDL cholesterol. Cholesterol is only found in animals, whereas saturated fats are in animals and tropical oils such as palm and coconut oil. This is why you may have heard that you should avoid foods that contain these fats, including red meat and eggs.

It turns out that the link between saturated fat, cholesterol, and heart disease isn’t what we long believed, so these dietary recommendations are being revisited. There has been much discussion in the media and scientific literature about the basis for our current recommendations leading to spirited debate among nutritionists and other health professionals.

If you are interested in learning more about the history and science behind the cholesterol-saturated fat-heart disease relationship, the recent book The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz,  an interview with the author on The People’s Pharmacy public radio radio show, and  the article Ending the War on Fat in Time magazine are good, user-friendly places to start. Keep in mind that there are many scientists who disagree and research to support the health benefits of reducing saturated fat—and fat in general—in the diet. But there is growing support for the notion that maybe fat isn’t as bad as we initially believed.

Unsaturated fats are found in plant oils. Polyunsaturated fats tend to lower both LDL and HDL cholesterol. Monounsaturated fats are associated with lower LDL but they do not lower HDL cholesterol–this is better. Oils high in polyunsaturated fats include corn and soybean oil while olive and canola oils are rich in monounsaturated fats.

Trans fats are found mostly in modified oils which are hydrogenated to make them more solid and have a longer shelf life. For example, when corn oil (unsaturated fat) is partially hydrogenated it becomes more trans and is more solid—margarine. Trans fats are used in baked and fried foods and can be identified on food labels (most of the time) or by the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredient list. Trans fats have the effect of raising LDL while lowering HDL cholesterol, a bad combination!

There are three essential omega-3 fats in the diet: ALA, EPA, and DHA. Two of these, EPA and DHA, are primarily found in fish and are associated with reduced risk of heart attack due to their beneficial effects reducing inflammation and blood clotting. Other sources of omega-3 fats include flax seeds, which are high in ALA. The evidence is strongest for beneficial health effects of EPA and DHA, so eating fish or taking fish oil supplements is a common recommendation.

Dietary fat should account for 20–35% of your total calories. The typical American diet is a bit too high in total fat, mostly from unhealthy sources. Your goal should be to make food choices that will shift your intake of fat away from unhealthy sources (trans fats) to more healthy sources (monounsaturated and omega-3 fats). Keep in mind that “fat-free” foods aren’t necessarily healthy options.

Fortunately, trans fats are less common now than they were even a few years ago, but staying away from fried foods and checking the labels on prepackaged snacks will help you avoid trans fats. Switching to olive or canola oil to increase your consumption of monounsaturated fats and eating fish 2–3 times per week can help you get enough omega-3 fats.

Just as with carbohydrates, you should get your dietary fats from real food (like butter), not processed foods (margarine). If you do that, you won’t need to worry so much about the types of fats you eat. And don’t forget that all fat contains calories, so don’t overeat even the healthier fats, especially if you are trying to control your weight!

Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
But it doesn't have to be that way.
What can I help you with?
 drbrianparr@gmail.com | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr

Celebrate Food Day every day by eating real food

This Friday is Food Day, an annual event that aims to raise awareness about the food we eat and the impact it has on our health, environment, and quality of life. It turns out that many of us don’t know much about our food including where it came from, the method of preparation, and the quality and nutritional value.

As I describe in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week, we are increasingly disconnected from our food, a fact that has implications for our health and the health of the environment.

Our lack of knowledge about the food we eat has been replaced by a heightened awareness about nutrients. In fact, many people follow diets that either emphasize or restrict certain nutrients in order to obtain health benefits. But the research to support the importance of these individual nutrients is often mixed or lacking altogether. Still, as we seek out sources of these nutrients we are led to supplements, such as fish oil, or processed foods with added nutrients, like fiber.

To be sure, fish oil and fiber are good for us. But does that mean that taking a fish oil supplement will have the same health benefits as actually eating fish instead of, say, fried chicken? Or is adding fiber to a chocolate breakfast bar equivalent to getting more fiber from fruits and vegetables? Both research and common sense suggest that the answer is no.

Beyond the individual nutrients, the food we eat has changed. Even the way food gets to our table has changed. Since nearly half of our meals are eaten outside the home, it’s not even “our” table anymore. And when we do eat at home, take-out and prepackaged heat-and-eat meals have become the norm. In fact, the idea of cooking meals from ingredients is so foreign that we have to be reminded about how and why we should do it.

Events like Food Day are an attempt to get us back to the basics of cooking and eating real food. This, of course, is how people ate for years before the obesity and diabetes epidemics we are dealing with now, so eating real food again is a step toward reducing these, and other, health problems.

In addition to the potential health benefits of focusing on food over nutrients, this approach is also good for the environment and the economy. It turns out that eating healthier food promotes sustainable agriculture and can support local farmers. Locally grown produce, which is picked at the peak of freshness, can be more nutritious and have a lower environmental impact than food from factory farms which is often shipped great distances. And most important, food from local farms usually tastes better!

This is the point of Food Day. We should make ourselves aware of where our food comes from and do our best to eat “real food” as opposed to processed and pre-packaged foods that tend to be high in calories, added sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats. When possible, we should buy foods that are grown locally to minimize the environmental impact and support local farmers who live, work, and pay taxes in our area.

It turns out that focusing on food, not nutrients, will have a positive impact on your health, the environment, and quality of life for you and others. And that is why it is called Food Day, not nutrient day. You can learn more about how you can celebrate Food Day every day at www.foodday.org.