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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

My All-Knowing Cousin Was Wrong--Thank Goodness
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Curtiss D. Hunt

The year was 1963. I was an earnest sixth grader who looked up to my cousin because he was in ninth grade and, therefore, knew everything. I was especially awed by his right to be served honey and other exotic foods at a special school lunchroom table on the days that he and his fellow athletes competed against other basketball teams.

As I walked by that special table one day, my cousin turned to me and announced that, in the future, it would not be necessary to eat special foods to increase athletic performance. With great solemnity, he informed me that scientists were developing a pill so powerful that even a single dose would supply all nutrients required for an entire day.

I was very impressed with this information. It generated many intriguing questions. How could a person feel full after eating a single pill? Was there a lot of ""empty"" space in the food that we normally ate? Or, was there a lot of something in our food that we didn’t really need?

Fortunately, there is not much interest at present in squeezing a day’s nutrition into a pill. Rather, there has been considerable scientific and consumer interest in finding "new" nutrients or learning more about "old" nutrients. The public has benefited greatly from this flurry of nutrition research activity. For example, we now know that a deficiency of the vitamin folate during pregnancy can cause neural tube defects in the newborn.

But trying to remain healthy by consuming individual nutrients in a supplement can cause as much customer dissatisfaction as trying to reduce meals to pills. For example, this reductionist approach may lead some individuals to believe that they will not get osteoporosis if they consume large amounts of calcium. There is a scientific consensus that calcium is important in reducing the risk of osteoporosis and improving bone health.

However, calcium doesn’t do this alone--without additional vitamins, minerals and exercise. Nutrition scientists are keenly aware that two or more individual nutrients often play complementary roles in the body to provide a health effect not possible by either nutrient acting singly. For example, calcium is needed to make bones hard, but a tiny amount of copper in the diet helps keep them from becoming brittle.

Vitamin C is another obviously important nutrient. Should one rely on a pill form of vitamin C to meet nutritional requirements? Or, instead, should one try to eat foods that supply adequate amounts of vitamin C? I would choose the latter approach.

Boron is a natural dietary substance that improves bone structure in vitamin D deficient animals and, therefore, may be of importance to human bone health. It turns out that the major dietary sources of vitamin C and boron are the same. Thus, drinking a glass of orange juice not only improves vitamin C intakes but also improves boron intakes and intakes of other undiscovered nutrients.

Thank goodness, my cousin’s prognostication did not come true. We will continue to eat meals, not pills. We will also continue to eat foods, not nutrients, because it is not practical, and probably not possible, to make a dietary supplement that mimics all of the important ratios among nutrients present in well-balanced diets made of complex foods.

There is nothing wrong with consuming dietary supplements in moderation from time to time but they should not take the place of a well-balanced diet.

Last Modified: 10/23/2006
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