When you’re trying to identify the ‘best source’ of a nutrient, there are largely 2 important things to consider: 1) the quantity of the nutrient and 2) the ‘bioavailability’ of the nutrient.
The first is self-explanatory, but what exactly is ‘bioavailability’ and why does it matter? Read on to find out!
What Is Bioavailability?
Simply put, ‘bioavailability’ is the measure of how easily a nutrient can be absorbed by our body .
Before they can be used for their health benefits/functions, the nutrients we consume first need to be broken down, by our digestive system, into forms that our body can use. The nutrients that can be easily broken down are called ‘bioavailable’.
On the other hand, micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants), can vary widely in the extent to which they are absorbed and used once consumed. That’s where the bioavailability of the nutrient needs to be accounted for .
There are a few exceptions here. For example, insoluble fibre (a form of fibre that doesn’t dissolve in water) is meant to pass through the body unabsorbed. So, despite not being broken further, it would still be considered ‘bioavailable’, given that it’s serving its intended use.
The concept is relatively simple. If ingredients aren’t absorbed and delivered in their ideal form to the target site in the body, and can’t perform their specific functions, they aren’t ‘bioavailable’.
Why is it important?
The bioavailability of the nutrients you consume is directly proportional to the positive effects they have on your overall health. When a nutrient is not bioavailable, it won’t be absorbed, which can result in its insufficiency or even a deficiency in the long run.
For example, spinach contains the most calcium amongst all the leafy greens. However, only 5% of its calcium content is absorbed and used by the body . This happens because of certain anti-nutrients (substances that block or interfere with the absorption of other nutrients) called ‘oxalates’ present in spinach [5, 6].
In this example, the calcium in spinach has low bioavailability – which means, if you’re largely relying on getting calcium from spinach, you’re not actually getting it in optimum levels, resulting in an inadequate intake. In the long run, inadequate amounts of calcium can result in weak bones (osteoporosis) . The takeaway message from this example isn’t to avoid spinach, which contains other valuable nutrients, but to consume a variety of sources of calcium (like dairy, soybean, chickpeas, almonds, etc.) to make sure you’re getting enough.
Bioavailability becomes extremely important while choosing dietary supplements. If we’re consuming a supplement that doesn’t have nutrients with high bioavailability, a significant amount of the nutrients will be lost. It sort of negates the whole point of supplementation. Choosing supplements formulated to have high bioavailability is the more effective way to get the nutrients we need.
Bioavailability is the key to getting the most nutrition out of the food that we eat. If the nutrients are not properly absorbed and utilized by the body, they would not be able to provide the intended results/benefits. Bioavailability, as a consequence, helps determine whether a person is able to reach a state of optimal health—which, at the end of the day, is what we are all striving for, right?
We hope you found this article helpful! We’re going to be exploring the topic of bioavailability in more depth in the near future, for anyone who’s interested in learning more. If there’s anything specific you’d like us to cover, leave a comment below!