A question we should be asking ourselves about Nutrients – Food or Supplements…what is the best choice for me?
Dietary supplements are in abundance everywhere we look. They fill the shelves in supermarkets and pharmacies. They are easily obtained “next day” online. Manufacturers want us to believe we need these, and that supplements are essential for meeting our nutrient needs. In some cases, they may be right.
However, with several dosages, various nutrient combinations, and more than one chemical compound for the same nutrient, how does one choose? Consumers are left confused and wondering… supplements vs food, what is my best option?
According to the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), 77% of Americans are taking dietary supplements to help meet their nutrient needs. A survey by ConsumerLab.com, of nearly 10,000 supplement users, found these to be the most popular:
- Vitamin D (66%)
- Magnesium (53.5%)
- Fish oil (52.5%)
- CoQ10 (45.7%)
- Multivitamin (42.4%)
- Probiotics (38.9%)
- Turmeric (curcumin) (34.8%)
- Vitamin C (34.5%)
- B Complex (31.2%)
- B 12 (30.3%)
- Calcium (27.0%)
- Protein (19.5%)
While vitamin supplements can be helpful to fill in the “gaps”, getting nutrients from food is more important.
Nutrients are most effective when they come from food, according to Dr. Clifford Lo, an associate professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. Food is “accompanied by many nonessential but beneficial nutrients, such as hundreds of carotenoids, flavonoids, minerals, and antioxidants that aren’t in most supplements”. These substances work together, potentially enhancing the benefits of each individual nutrient.
The typical American diet, however, is highly processed and high in fat, thereby promoting obesity, chronic inflammation, and disease. As a result, even the nutrients in the healthy foods that we do eat, may not be well utilized.
When should we choose dietary supplements vs food? Some things to consider
Aging: In a Harvard Health Letter, Dr. Howard Sesso explains, “As we get older, our ability to absorb nutrients from food decreases. Also, our energy needs are not the same, and we tend to eat less.” In these cases, adding a multivitamin/mineral supplement might be beneficial.
Chronic illnesses and medications: Supplements can be useful in some disease conditions, such as those involving the gastrointestinal tract, which results in poor vitamin and mineral absorption. Other chronic illnesses such as osteoporosis require extra calcium and vitamin D, while those with anemia may need supplemental iron. Frequent users of medications such as antacids may be deficient in B12 since reducing the acid environment in the gut decreases the ability of B12 to be absorbed. Those taking diuretics may need supplemental potassium or magnesium.
Other considerations for dietary supplements vs food
Diet: Poor eating habits, including some extreme diets, are not likely to meet one’s nutrient needs, therefore warranting a multivitamin/mineral supplement. Those who opt for a plant-based or vegan diet may need a Vitamin B12 supplement. Vitamin B12 is only available in animal products and fortified foods, therefore it is difficult to obtain without supplementation. The American Heart Association recommends oily fish, however, supplemental Omega-3 fish oil should be considered for those with existing heart disease.
Athletic performance: Athletes may benefit from supplements, depending on the intensity and duration of their exercise as well as the athlete’s goals.
Those looking to build muscle can benefit from increased protein up to 2 grams per kilogram of weight. Whey protein powder is a nutrient-rich source.
Creatine supplements are popular and thought to increase muscle strength but may not be helpful for endurance training. Beetroot juice and Beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate (HMB) might improve endurance or recovery after exercise, but clinical trials for each are controversial.
In each of the above considerations, taking a supplement to replace a missing or deficient nutrient, or to meet an increased need, can be helpful and beneficial. This should be confirmed by your medical professional. Taking unnecessary supplements may have risks.
What are the risks of using supplements?
Taking supplements without medical advice can be risky. Overdose or toxic levels of some vitamins and minerals can result if consumed in excess. For example, fat-soluble vitamins can accumulate over time and can build up to dangerous levels. Fat-soluble vitamins include Vitamins A, D, E, and K. Supplementation with these vitamins should be taken with caution, not to exceed recommended levels.
Vitamin A toxicity, or hypervitaminosis A, can result in complications such as blurred vision, skin issues, and liver disease. Vitamin D toxicity is rare but can result in unhealthy levels of calcium in the blood and lead to kidney damage. Toxic levels of Vitamins E and K are uncommon, however, in excess they can affect blood thinning.
It should be noted that toxic levels of fat-soluble vitamins are not likely to occur from meal intake and therefore toxicity is rare from diet alone.
Mineral supplements must also be taken with caution. Excess iron can cause gastrointestinal and cellular damage, and too much calcium in the blood, or hypercalcemia, can lead to kidney stones.
Supplements also have additives that may contain harmful inactive ingredients. These include substances such as colors and dyes, preservatives, lubricants, stabilizers, and anti-caking agents, among others.
Herbal supplements are popular; however, treatments are often unproven and interactions with medications uncertain. A discussion with your physician before using herbal supplements is recommended.
Consider these nutrient-rich foods before reaching for a supplement:
|Vitamin D||Salmon, tuna, lean beef, vitamin D-fortified milk,|
yogurt, fortified orange juice, egg yolk
|Magnesium||Spinach, kale, and other leafy green vegetables;|
unrefined grains; legumes
|Omega 3 Fish Oil||Fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel,|
|CoQ 10||Fatty fish such as salmon and tuna, |
organ meats such as liver (in moderation), whole grains,
whole grains. Soybeans, lentils, and peanuts.
|Multivitamin||Variety of fruits and vegetables,|
whole grains, poultry, fish
|Turmeric (curcumin)||Added spice used in cooking|
|Vitamin C||Orange juice, tomatoes, broccoli,|
|Vitamin B complex||Lean beef, turkey, tuna, sunflower seeds,|
spinach, leafy greens, eggs
|Vitamin B 12||meat, poultry, eggs, fortified foods|
|Calcium||Dairy products, fish such as salmon|
and sardines, and dark, leafy greens
|Protein||Meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products,|
Taking supplements may seem like an easy answer, but nutrients are best utilized when obtained from healthy food. Food that includes vitamins and minerals, as well as other beneficial substances such as antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, fiber, and micronutrients.
Consider improving your diet first. Check with your health professional or registered dietitian to help you decide if your age, chronic illnesses, and medications, or your diet and performance needs warrant a supplement. Never exceed the recommended dosage and only take what you need. Remember, too much of a good thing can be harmful.