On the Fallacy of Eating a Small, Bitter Pill Instead of Real Food

March 5, 2019 in Foodland Chronicles, Health, Nutritionism by Joyce Bunderson

Are you struggling to stick with the goal of diet improvement?

I get it! It’s much easier to stay with your old eating habits and take the supplement you just learned is related to better health than to go through the considerable effort (with its tasty, enjoyable, often beautiful, and healthy results) to eat the types of foods that supply the whole wide range of nutrients you need. Although I understand your rationale for picking the pill, I also know that it is a flawed rationale. Let me just choose magnesium to make my argument.

Magnesium is a metal and oxidizes easily. It may be silver-white. Magnesium salt tastes bitter.  Too much can be harmful to your health. Why would anyone think of eating a magnesium supplement instead of choosing foods that contain it?  Other supplements are like this; you wouldn’t think of eating them as a food, but scientific studies say they help the body in some way – mysterious until really costly and difficult research shows how a mineral or other supplement actually gets into the body the right way, in the right amount, and helps the body.

There’s some well-done broad-brush research that shows that people with higher magnesium intake have a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. It’s a useful kind of research that says that eating foods containing magnesium is beneficial, but it doesn’t even tell us that the magnesium was what made the difference. None the less, I can imagine, if I knew that there was type 2 diabetes in my family, I’d be tempted to hop in the car to go pick up my bottle of magnesium supplements. Heaven knows, I would want to do what I could to avoid joining the 100 million or more in the U.S. with diabetes or prediabetes. The CDC reported in 2017 that 9.4 percent of the U.S. population – have diabetes (30.3 million) and another 84.1 million have prediabetes. It’s no secret that uncontrolled diabetes raises risk for cardiovascular disease, strokes, skin problems, nerve problems, kidney problems, eye problems, some cancers, higher risk of infections, gastroparesis (delayed emptying of food from the stomach) and possibly Alzheimer’s disease. So clearly, I’d be motivated to avoid diabetes. But in reality, I do have relatives with type 2 diabetes, and I didn’t hop into the car. Read on to find out why not.

Losing weight and exercising more can lower your risk of type 2 diabetes; but getting more magnesium, in the right way and in the right combination with other things, and in the right amount, might help too. The snag of the study cited above, which involved 17,130 incident cases of type 2 diabetes over 28 years of follow-up is that the magnesium was coming from their food – not supplements. This type of study only makes a connection between a food containing the nutrient suspected to cause the effect. It may be magnesium or maybe not. The magnesium might help beta cells in the pancreas secrete insulin or it may make the cells in the body more sensitive to insulin, so the cells are more responsive to insulin. Those are just guesses.  It would take well-designed studies to really know for sure. The study just cited provides no evidence that taking a magnesium supplement would help.  There have even been studies showing that taking a single publicized nutrient as a supplement can makes things worse, not better.

One reason for this finding, in the case of magnesium, is that foods known to be rich in this nutrient have thousands of other nutrients as well.  Good magnesium foods include green leafy vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Obviously, these foods have many other nutrients in addition to magnesium. If you take magnesium supplements rather than the whole foods, you may miss out on what total set of nutrients in those foods is really causing, all together, the lower risk of type 2 diabetes.  Moreover, you may also get the bad side effect of diarrhea. The great thing about getting magnesium from foods is that the risk of getting too much is essentially nonexistent. In addition to avoiding possible diarrhea, you can also avoid wasting your time, money, and effort if it proves to be some other micronutrient (a different mineral, vitamin or phytonutrient (which number in the thousands) – or some combination of them. Not only that, maybe it is magnesium, but perhaps the magnesium needs some phytonutrient to work with it. Or it’s involved with the plant fiber that is in the food. Being well-nourished is far more complex than popping some supplements. And with the whole foods, you are getting the magnesium in the very context that the study investigated –eating the magnesium-containing foods!

There are lots of good reasons to keep working on improving your diet and not trying to rely on supplements. Stick with your resolution to improve your diet this year. Keep chipping away at that worthy goal even though seems to take more effort than taking a small, but bitter, pill. It can be done.