In this third part in his Series on Pain Craig Hart continues looking into the relationship between diet and its effect on pain. This time with an eye on supplements. Make sure you grab a coffee before sitting down to read this post… it’s pretty long, but worth reading every word!
In part 2 of this series on pain and the older martial artist , I touched on the theoretical relationship between diet and injury prevention. As a continuation of that topic, in this article I would like to discuss supplements and their role in our diet.
As per the part 2 disclaimers, please note that I am not a dietician and my theories, research and thoughts are not intended as a substitute for professional healthcare advice. I urge you to seek professional advice and do your own research and homework in the best interests of your own lifestyle, body and personal choices.
Today’s busy lifestyle places a huge demand on our bodies and minds. For the 40+ person it can be challenging balancing a career, family, physical exercise, martial arts training and community organisations that we are involved in. We are now more accessible than ever. From personal experience I seem to have less “downtime” than ever.
When we couple this with the fact that some of the readily available fuel (food) we consume contains little of the essential nutrients that our bodies were designed to thrive from, all of a sudden we face a threatening deficit.
We are individuals — every single person on this planet is unique. Abraham Lincoln said, “God must have loved the common people — he made so many of them.” What he really should have said was, “God must have loved the Uncommon people — he made so many of them!” So it is important to remember that each one of us will react to and benefit from different foods, medications, supplements and treatments in our own individual way. Take what works for you and discard the rest.
Personally I believe that you’re usually better off getting your nutrition from real food than from dietary supplements. There are some cases where supplements make sense. For the most part, though, if you’re eating a healthy diet, you really shouldn’t need to take handfuls of supplements as well. But what about this idea that we need supplements to make up for the fact that fruits and vegetables are less nutritious than they used to be? Has our soil become depleted of nutrients and rendered our food supply nutritionally bankrupt?
It is true that growing crops removes nutrients from the soil. Over time, soil that’s farmed intensively and constantly can become depleted of certain nutrients. Although farmers add nutrients back to the soil in order to maintain the productivity of the land, they might not always replace everything that’s been depleted.
For example, fruits and vegetables absorb minerals from the soil that aren’t required for healthy plant growth but do contribute to the health of the animals and humans that eat those plants. Over time, these nutrients will become depleted. But if they don’t noticeably affect crops, farmers might not bother to replenish them. As a result, the level of nutrients in fruits and vegetables could decline. That’s the theory, anyway. So, what’s the evidence?
A couple of studies(1) , one in England and one in the U.S., attempted to compare nutrient data collected in the and 50s and 60s with more recent nutrient analyses. Both studies found differences. For example, the British study found that the calcium content of modern vegetables was about one-fifth lower than what was measured in the 1960s and average copper content declined almost 80%. The U.S. study, which was more carefully controlled, found that amounts for a few nutrients like vitamin C, iron, and riboflavin declined somewhat, several were the same, and a few actually increased.
These studies are widely–but very selectively–cited in books, articles, and websites that sell nutritional supplements. You never see any mention of the fact that the level of some nutrients has apparently increased in the last 50 years, for example.
The authors of both studies are very candid that most of the differences are probably explained by factors other than nutrient depletion of the soil–and it’s not at all clear that these changes pose a problem. For example, the dramatic decline in copper levels in vegetables from 1960 to 1990 is probably because copper-based pesticides, which were widely used then, are not as commonly used now.
When you actually read the studies, it becomes clear that a lot of the differences are most likely the result of changes in sampling methods and measurement techniques, geographical variation, and the random variation in nutrient values from one pepper or strawberry to the next–which is much more significant than most people realize.
In part 2, I touched on a few theoretical nutrient associations for maintaining the body when training or competing to reduce the risks of potential injury. I.e. Carbohydrates, protein, calcium and iron. As a continuance to that article, I will continue to look at just those four things. There are of course many other important nutrients that can (and may well need to) be supplemented and I urge you to do your own research to expand on these four.
From my personal experience, the thing I tend to lack is complex carbohydrates when training regularly. Currently I have a 5 day a week program with 3 gym days and 2 TKD days. My typical breakfast for the last 8 years has been fresh fruit and fresh fruit only — part of the Spartan Health program I have mentioned before. This has served me well but recently I have been found wanting for energy in more intense work outs (even much later in the day after other food) and this has been remedied with the addition of some complex carbs at breakfast time in addition to my fruit.
Complex carbohydrates are high-fiber foods, which improve your digestion. They help stabilize the blood sugar, keep your energy at an even level, and help you feel satisfied longer after your meal.
In contrast, sugar and other simple carbohydrates can alter your mood, lead to cravings and compulsive eating, cause wide swings in your blood-sugar levels, and cause weight gain in most people.
Simple carbohydrates, like sugar and corn syrup, are created in a factory — while complex carbohydrates in vegetables and whole grains are designed by nature, and help you maintain your health.
Read food labels. If the label lists sugar, sucrose, fructose, corn syrup, white or “wheat” flour, they contain simple carbohydrates. If these ingredients are at the top of the list, they may contain mostly simple carbohydrates, and little else.
With a busy training schedule I supplement protein with a simple whey protein. When training with weights or even when you first start out on any exercise or training, I don’t believe that there’s any way to completely eliminate muscle soreness or delayed onset muscle soreness — also called DOMS — but whey protein may help reduce soreness and increase the speed of muscle recovery.
Although it is generally undisputed that athletes (and bodybuilders) need an increased intake of protein, the exact amount is highly individualized and dependent on the type and duration of the exercise as well as the physiological make up of the individual. Age, gender, and body size may vary this protein intake. Some health experts have criticized protein shakes as being unnecessary for most people that consume them, since most users already get enough protein in the normal varied diet with enough calories. However, there is some evidence to support the idea that protein shakes are superior to whole foods with regards to enhancing muscle growth in the one hour window following intensive exercise.
Milk, yogurt, and cheese are rich natural sources of calcium and are the major food contributors of this nutrient. Nondairy sources include vegetables, such as Chinese cabbage, kale, and broccoli. Spinach provides calcium, but its bioavailability is poor. Most grains do not have high amounts of calcium unless they are fortified; however, they contribute calcium to the diet because they contain small amounts of calcium and people consume them frequently. Foods fortified with calcium include many fruit juices and drinks, tofu, and cereals.
The two main forms of calcium in supplements are carbonate and citrate. Calcium carbonate is more commonly available and is both inexpensive and convenient. Due to its dependence on stomach acid for absorption, calcium carbonate is absorbed most efficiently when taken with food, whereas calcium citrate is absorbed equally well when taken with or without food.
Some individuals who take calcium supplements might experience gastrointestinal side effects including gas, bloating, constipation, or a combination of these symptoms.
Personally my calcium all comes from my diet and I would urge you to seek advice on calcium supplementation as there are a number of considerations in terms of interaction with medications etc that need to be considered.
For many years I used desiccated liver tablets as a supplement — again something that I took from the Spartan Health program.
Iron is a mineral found in every cell of the body. It is vital for good health and for our mental and physical wellbeing. Lack of iron is the most common single nutrient deficiency worldwide, with women and preschool children being at particular risk.
Iron is one of 20 minerals found in food. It is stored in your liver, spleen and bone marrow. If your body lacks iron, it cannot make enough haemoglobin, which is the substance in your red blood cells that carries oxygen to the body and brain.
Iron boosts your immune system, helps fight infections, and is vital for normal child growth and intellectual development. If you do not have enough, you may lack energy and get sick often. Iron is needed for optimum brain function in adults and children.
Some iron-rich foods in your diet;
- Meat and fish: beef, lamb (especially kidneys and liver), veal, pork, poultry, mussels, oysters, sardines and tuna
- Fruits: dried fruits such as prunes, figs, raisins, currants, peaches and prune and blackberry juice
- Vegetables: greens (spinach, silverbeet, lettuce), beans and peas, pumpkin and sweet potatoes
- Grains: oatmeal, iron-fortified breakfast cereals and wholegrain breads.
A small number of people are at risk of storing too much iron, so iron supplementation should be reviewed periodically by your doctor.
There are of course a multitude of supplements available on the market and pretty much every one of them will link back to some study that “proves” how it is great for you and how you can’t live without it. I of course urge caution around these things. I have had the good fortune to be able to try a number of different things over the years and some things I can honestly say have worked for me. Other things I am still trying to decide if they work or not.
One thing that works for me — Sujon Black currant powder. Black currants give the highest bang for buck in terms of (natural) antioxidants and I found that my recovery and soreness from hard training sessions seemed easier. Definitely worth a go in my opinion. It costs around $30 NZ for a months’ supply. It’s easy to take and not too bad tasting.
One thing I’m still not sure about — Glucosamine. I have taken 1500 mg Glucosamine for long periods of time and coupled that with fish oil capsules to theoretically “maintain joint health”. Well, I’m no doctor but I can say that my observation while taking these two things is that when I get out of bed in the morning, I am exceedingly “clicky” in most major joints in my body. Knees, hips, shoulders etc. As an experiment, I stopped taking both and lately, after a month or so of not taking them, my clicking seems to have gone. So, in the absence of any real medical evidence and based purely on personal observation I don’t quite know whether there is value in those things or not for me.
Years ago when I worked in the USA, I travelled around a bit with an American guy who worked for the same company. One morning before we headed out to work, I noted him gulping down handfuls of vitamins and other pills which was effectively his breakfast. I laughed at him and explained that in NZ we get everything we need from our food! Today, I still believe that – but I would urge anyone who shares an interest in long term health to review what you eat and what you are supplementing with on a regular basis. Your body is a precious asset that deserves high levels of attention.
Take an interest in your health and don’t feel constrained to your GP. There are a lot of extremely well trained and knowledgeable health care professionals who can help. Modern western medicine is just one philosophy of wellness.
I also encourage my friends, family and colleagues to read food labels. Check the ingredients list and take an interest in the nutritional information. Personally, there are a number of food additives that I avoid as they disagree with my body. 621 – Monosodium L Glutamate (MSG) being probably one of the worse ones for me. Information on food additive codes etc is freely available on the internet. A simple rule of thumb for me is the fewer the number of ingredients and additives listed, the more likely I am to consider eating it. If there is a long list of additives, colourings and flavour enhancers — forget it.
In the next part we will look a little more closely at the different health providers and what they do.
(1) Mayer, Anne-Marie. British Food Journal. Vol 99, No 6, 207 (1997)
Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999 Donald R. Davis, PhD, FACN, Melvin D. Epp, PhD and Hugh D. Riordan, MD. Journal of the American College of Nutrition Vol. 23, No. 6, 669-682 (2004)