Did you know that your everyday nutritional needs can be met primarily through a diet of whole foods without the addition of nutrient supplements? Although this statement pertains to most healthy Americans, some groups benefit tremendously from taking supplements (see the end of the article for what specific groups may benefit from supplements). In the paragraphs to follow, I am not going to tell you that supplements are good or that they’re bad. My goal is to give you some food for thought for the next time you prepare a meal, stroll through the aisles of your local grocery store, or take a trip to the supplement store.
Many Americans view supplements as a magic solution leading to optimal health. Can you think of a family member or friend that this statement applies to? Maybe you yourself use supplements or a daily vitamin to meet you nutritional needs. Americans spend billions of dollars each year on supplements. Unfortunately, this increase in supplement sales has not been accompanied by an increase in consumer understanding of why they are taking supplements. There is the mistaken notion that supplements can serve as a primary source of nutrition; however, supplements are meant to supplement the diet. It takes more than just popping a multivitamin each day to reach your optimal level of health.
Before we move on, I would like to clarify the term ‘whole foods.’ Whole foods are foods that are in their ‘whole form’—the way nature intended them to be. Artificial additives are absent from these foods. Some examples of whole foods include apples, potatoes, broccoli, rice, milk, pinto beans, and rib-eye steak. All of these foods can be found at your local grocery store. Whole foods do not have to be bought at Whole Foods Market or Trader Joe’s—and you don’t have to break the bank to buy them either!
Now, I will discuss a few important benefits of eating a diet filled with whole foods (as opposed to taking supplements) to enhance your health.
According to Amy Howell, a nutrition researcher at Rutgers University, “plants are the world’s best chemists.” The cells in plants (i.e. fruits and vegetables) provide a perfect protective environment for naturally occurring vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals; all of which have important health-promoting effects. The protective environment of the cells help these vital nutrients stay potent and in a form that your body can absorb most efficiently. Obtaining nutrients through fruits and vegetables (whole foods) allows your body to achieve the full benefits of the nutrition in that food. Although many have tried, no supplement manufacturer has ever been able to replicate the high efficiency of nutrient preservation, delivery, and absorption in whole foods. The most important factors in nutrient intake are the form and the bioavailability. ‘Bioavailability’ is a fancy word for how much of that nutrient your body will absorb. Rather than focusing on the amount of nutrient you ingest, focus on quality (not necessarily quantity). Whole foods are the best choice for sustaining your body because nature packs the nutrients in a way that your body can use best. Supplements are not meant to be a substitute for food because they can’t replicate the form of nutrients found in whole foods.
Whole foods provide a balance of nutrients and other factors that work in concert with one another to benefit your body to a greater extent than a single nutrient contained in a purified supplement. Whole foods are blended together in a specific way that allows your body to absorb nutrients most effectively. These foods contain dozens of biologically active compounds woven together in a complex system. Supplements are just fragments of this system, artificially isolated in a form that is not as effectively used by our bodies. The complex combination of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and other substances present in fruits and vegetables can increase the availability of nutrients to our bodies. It is also important to consider that, unlike supplements, whole foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes, provide dietary fiber. Fiber can help prevent diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease in addition to managing constipation.
Further studies suggest that supplements may not be as beneficial to our health as we have been led to believe. Two newly published studies in Annals of Internal Medicine indicate that there are no clear health benefits for healthy people who consume vitamin supplements. These studies suggest that the body can treat the isolated, synthetic nutrients of supplements like foreign substances. The unnaturally high doses of single nutrients delivered by supplements upsets the balance of active compounds found in whole foods and may actually induce detrimental effects on health. Also, toxic overload of nutrients is much more likely to result from supplement intake than from food intake. It is nearly impossible to develop a vitamin or mineral toxicity from eating whole foods. If you choose a variety of foods including colorful fruits and vegetables, nature will balance everything for you. Supplements are not necessary to ensure that you meet your nutritional needs (with some exceptions).
Maybe one day there will be a magic pill that we can take instead of eating real, whole foods—but for now the best advice for optimal health is to fill your meals with mostly whole foods. Just as their name implies, supplements are designed to supplement a healthy diet and provide insurance that nutritional needs are being fulfilled. They are not a substitute for eating healthful whole foods.
I’m not saying supplements are bad (I take a fish oil supplement), but I just want you to know that the best strategy for promoting optimal health and reducing the risk of chronic disease is to choose a wide variety of real food! Food is powerful.
Who can benefit from supplements?
- Women who may become pregnant should take folic acid.
- Women who are pregnant should take a prenatal vitamin.
- Women who experience heavy bleeding during their menstrual period should take iron.
- Adults over the age of 50 should take vitamin B12.
- Those with poor eating habits or who consume less than 1,600 calories a day should take nutrient supplements.
- Those with medical conditions or surgeries that affect how the body absorbs nutrients should take nutrient supplements.
If you fall into one of these categories, talk to a registered dietitian or physician about which supplement and what dose may be appropriate for you.
Below is a guide to nutrient-packed eating. Use it to help add variety to your diet and eat more nutrient-dense foods. This is way more fun than taking a multivitamin!
I have highlighted examples of whole foods that have a high content of particular vitamins and minerals. The food sources of these vitamins and minerals are not limited to the items listed, but the items listed are some of the richest sources.
Soy milk & tofu
Nuts & nut butters