Scott Gibson: Unfood - The American quest for nutrition by pills

Americans have become enamored with nutrition by pill, as have many residents of other industrialized nations. Fish oil, vitamin E, vitamin C, coenzyme Q10, riboflavin, chromium, selenium and almost any other vitamin or micronutrient you could name are encapsulated and consumed in vast quantities in the quest for better health.

And it’s not only nutrients. Lately we’ve learned microbes living in our gut are important to good health. So, of course, the supplement firms have provided us with pills that contain dried bacteria and fungi, marketed as probiotics, that we can use to super-populate our already heavily populated intestinal tracts.
We are addicted to highly processed food, much of it sugar-laden. To compensate, we look to the pill for redemption.

The problem with all of this nutrition-by-pill craze is it almost never does us any good. Let’s focus on two examples currently popular which have come under appropriate scientific scrutiny — fish oil and probiotics.

A recent review of 79 studies on fish oil, published in Cochrane Reviews, found “little to no evidence” that omega-3 fatty acids or other products derived from fish oil supplements provided any protection against heart disease. Eating fish, on the other hand, is associated with a significant reduction in heart attack risk.

The conclusion? Food improves health; extracts do not.

Guest Writer

Dr. Scott Gibson s a board-certified internist who has established a local practice almost 30 years ago. He maintains an affiliation with the Willamette Valley Medical Center in addition to operating the Yamhill Valley Surgical Center, specializing in colonoscopies and endoscopies. He served several years on the McMinnville School Board before moving to Amity to open a bed and breakfast inn with his wife, Melody. He is also an accomplished landscape photographer.

This pattern of food furnishing health benefits that extracted components do not is a recurring one. Beta carotene and vitamin E supplements were supposed to help protect against cancer and other diseases, because people who ate foods rich in these elements experienced lower cancer rates. But the studies showed otherwise.

Nutrients eaten as food were good; pills did nothing.

Fish oil pills are not only devoid of health benefits, they are also damaging to the environment.

Every year, the fish reduction industry processes 20 to 25 million tons of fish, equal to the weight of the entire U.S. population. Sadly, much of the harvest is wasted making capsules destined for medicine cabinets.

If micronutrients aren’t the path to good health, what about micro-organisms?

We know the human colon is rich in a wide variety of microbes shown to have many important health functions. So maybe we need more of them, right?

Probiotics have been popularized as a means to “support colon health,” as the ads like to tout. But what does that mean, exactly.

Do they cure constipation? Do they stop diarrhea? Do they prevent cancer?

No, they don’t.

With the exception of inflammatory bowel disease and post-antibiotic diarrhea, especially stemming from C. difficile infection, probiotics have not shown any benefits in treating diarrheal illness. There is no sound evidence of benefit in constipation, either.

Researchers are trying to find some combination of organisms that would reach that goal, but don’t hold your breath. Meanwhile, there is zero evidence for probiotics preventing colon cancer.

So, what do you do to help your microbiome be healthy and vibrant?

No surprise: The answer is foods, especially plant foods.

From avocados to zucchinis, all plant foods contain fiber. But all meat is 100 percent fiber-free.

Fiber is not digested by humans, but it provides a feast for the 30 trillion or so micro-organisms inhabiting our gut.

They eat what we can’t assimilate, and both microbes and humans benefit. So fiber is definitely a win-win.

Fiber is what we call a prebiotic — that is, a substance that truly supports the microbes we depend on.

Patients ask me what probiotic they should buy. I tell them they should be sure they are feeding the organisms that nature has provided them for free.

If you don’t feed your 30 trillion microbes, throwing in a few billion more in pill form is not going to help. They will starve just like the rest of the crowd. And if you are feeding them as you should, 30 trillion should be sufficient.

Animal studies indicate that gut microbes are so dependent on fiber that if they are starved, they start feeding on the vital mucus layer in the colon that protects the lining from pathogenic bacteria. Feed your microbes or they will turn on you.

If that weren’t convincing enough, a diet high in fiber has also consistently been shown to lead to lower weight. Healthier microbes may be part of the reason. But whether it’s the microbes or something else, it’s a welcome side benefit.

Americans keep trying to find health in the unfood — a distilled, purified ingredient originally found in something edible but has been shorn of everything but a lonely chemical compound. All of the complexity and richness in which nutrient interacted with the plant that bore it is excised and discarded. Somehow, this naked chemical is supposed to provide us with health, but it’s a fool’s quest.

In the U.S., we spend roughly $15 billion a year on supplements. That represents more than 20 percent of the annual cost of the U.S. food stamp program.

Globally, the supplement market is expect to reach $180 billion a year by 2020. And all for pills that have repeatedly been shown to do little to nothing for our health.

Everything humans need for good health — vitamins, minerals, nutrients and fiber — is readily available in foods found in any good grocery store. The search for pills to take the place of the system that has been handed down to us by nature is expensive and frivolous.

True health food stores don’t sell things in capsules. They sell things harvested from fields and orchards.

If we really want good health, we will eat good food — plants mainly, with some fish and poultry, but very little beef and pork. Above all, we will avoid processed foods, especially those high in sugar, and exercise regularly.

Those are simple instructions, but carry powerful benefits. It’s time we quit looking for magical answers from a bottle and started dishing real solutions onto our plates.


Don Dix

Scott -- I like the way you are thinking. However, last winter, when the flu season was prevalent, my symptoms were common to the flu. I asked for a 'Z-pack', knowing it had worked previously. The 'doctor' prescribed a cough pill that didn't work at all, and an allergy medicine for 'symptoms'. Then this June, my spouse had different symptoms of varying degrees, but was told (by the same 'doctor') she had Willamette Valley allergies, and gave her exactly the same pills. Willamette Valley allergies -- really!

My point is that many people trust their physician to a fault. And some doctors are only an extension of big pharma, and faithfully prescribe medicine produced by that company. In my opinion, many of the 'pill junkies' in our society are the result of that devotion to the pill industry.

Bill B

Many people take the word of a doctor as gospel so for you to say; "Fish oil pills are not only devoid of health benefits ..." is irresponsible. Do a quick Google check and you will see the National Institute of Health, WEB MD and Harvard Health and many more indicate fish oil supplement benefits are inconclusive. It has been found to be beneficial for lowering triglycerides and psoriaisis.

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