In 1893, American activist, Mary Elizabeth Lease, proposed the idea of consuming phials of food in condensed form, as a way of lessening the everyday burden of cooking and cleaning on women.
Not much came out of it in reality, but the idea found ground in futuristic science fiction of the time, and thus was born the ‘food pill’.
Perhaps, the idea was so popular because it fit right into the imagined future of the past—one that was big on convenience, efficiency, and artificial synthesis.
Though we haven’t quite reached there yet, a modern parallel to the retro-futuristic food pill of sci-fi that has actually been realised is the dietary supplement.
Today one could find all your essential nutrients needed to survive, compressed into little pills.
But if pills and water are enough to survive, decades down the line, why aren’t we living like an episode of the Jetsons?
First, let’s get the obvious answer to the questions out of the way.
Even if we could live off of just pills and water, most of us probably wouldn't choose it. I mean, the love we have for our biryanis, kebabs, chocolate cakes, and pizzas is hardly a utilitarian one. Food to us—across cultures, is more than just a source of nutrition and we can all agree on that.
Now to the question of, ‘could you?’
Dietary supplements have been around for a while now, more and more essential minerals and vitamins have been successfully synthesised in labs to give us the same level of nutrition as the natural substance.
In fact, for a 21st-century person on the grind, who hasn’t the time or energy to make themselves balanced meals, dietary supplements have become an essential part of our daily routine.
So much so that potion-by-portion, our meals are being replaced by colourful pills.
The Case for Whole Foods
“ While supplements can help plug gaps in the diet, they cannot become a substitute for whole foods,” says Kavita Devgan, Nutritionist, health writer and the author of Ultimate Grandmother Hacks: 50 Kickass Traditional Habits for a Fitter You.
A major reason for this is that whole foods still contain a myriad of other components that our bodies find use for. “Phytochemicals, fibre, vitamins, minerals, enzymes and work ‘together’ to offer health benefits,” explains Kavita Devgan.
“For example, an orange will give you vitamin C, plus some beta carotene, calcium, fiber and loads of antioxidants. And they all work in synergy.”Kavita Devgan, Nutritionist and Health Writer
The COVID pandemic brought with it a mass paranoia, and in an attempt to fortify our defences against the potentially deadly virus, we naturally turned to ‘immunity boosting’ supplements, the sales of which skyrocketed during this time. But going overboard with them can lead to its own set of troubles.
With whole food, nutrients are metabolised slowly and absorbed in small doses, whereas in the case of supplements, overdoing it when you don’t necessarily need it, or popping them without a prescription could lead to toxicity damaging your liver and your kidneys.
Moreover, it's not just mixing medicines, but mixing supplements with certain medications can also prove dangerous.
According to the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), “certain dietary supplements can change absorption, metabolism, or excretion of a medication and therefore affect its potency.”
This means that you may end up getting either too much or too little of a medication you need. This fluctuation can prove fatal in the case of life-threatening illnesses like HIV/AIDS.
Furthermore, dietary supplements aren’t FDA approved. In fact, even in India, as they fall in the ambiguous space between ‘food’ and ‘drugs’, depending on how they are categorized, it's easy for producers to slip them through the stringent drug regulations.
Without the same level of strict checks that other drugs go through, you can never really be fully sure about the contents of the supplement pills and their safety.
When Should You Take Supplements?
All this is not to say that supplements are the spawn of evil and should be avoided at all costs.
Dietary supplements can be really helpful when taken right, and in certain situations can even be lifesaving, like in the case of people with acute deficiency, or those suffering from conditions that cause malabsorption—the inability to absorb nutrients from your diet.
Kavita Devgan talks about the importance of supplements in the case of certain vitamins like B12 and Vitamin D, that have very few food sources.
As for healthy people who have neither, supplements are usually prescribed, and highly recommended, during pregnancy.
Also, people on restrictive diets, like vegans and vegetarians are recommended supplements to make up for some of the natural nutrients they may be missing out on.
The bottom line is, take supplements under a doctor or dietician’s recommendation only.
Self-medicating with supplements or replacing whole foods with pills will not only do you no particular good but can also cause severe harm.