Supplements Vs. Food

We’ve been hearing a lot about ‘’fake news” lately. And although most of that media attention has been focused on politics, it happens in health news too. It’s particularly frustrating when you are bombarded by competing headlines like “Vitamins Create Expensive Urine” versus “Supplements Help Fill Nutritional Gaps.” When it comes to both current events and health information, it’s important to realize that the media loves controversy because it get ratings.

Sorting through contradictory claims is difficult, time-consuming work that most people simply do not have the time or the expertise to do. With that in mind, here’s a question I get asked alot: is there any difference in getting your nutrients from food or pills? Here’s what you need to know.

Food First

All things being equal, consuming a variety of minimally-processed, plant-based foods is the best way of getting the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients you need to maintain optimal health. There are a variety of reasons this is true:

  • The unique array of vitamins in real foods work together in subtle ways, which provides synergistic benefits that synthetic vitamins cannot match.
  • Real foods (fruits, veggies, nuts, grains, and legumes) are packed with beneficial fiber, which enhances nutrient absorption.
  • Real foods contain hundreds of complex phytonutrients and disease-fighting flavonoids. Supplements cannot duplicate the beneficial effects of these phytochemical compounds found in fresh, whole food.

Those are just a few of the reasons you should be eating more plant-based foods every day. But what about those who say multivitamins and other supplements can help you fill nutritional gaps or make up for deficiencies?

Generally speaking, wholesome foods like vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains are packed with the vitamins, minerals, antioxidant flavonoids, and the fiber you need to stay healthy. For most healthy people, eating a variety of minimally-processed, plant-based foods (organic whenever possible) should provide adequate nutrition and will avoid any overt nutrient deficiencies.

When Supplements Makes Sense

Food should absolutely come first, but there is a case to be made for nutritional supplementation. Here are some instances when supplementation can be beneficial:

  • Some people have dietary restrictions due to allergies or intolerances which can predispose them to a nutrient deficiency.
  • A number of medical problems can cause poor absorption which can lead to deficiency.
  • Many classes of prescription medications can reduce the bioavailability or impair absorption of vitamins and minerals.
  • Laboratory testing can reveal low nutrient levels which can be corrected with supplementation. Common examples include iron, vitamin B12, and vitamin D.
  • Naturopathic physicians (like myself) commonly use supplements in doses larger than those found in foods in order to modify a patients biochemistry for the treatment of a specific medical problem. In this way, a supplement is being used as a medication.  
  • Most commercial farming soil has become nutrient depleted as a result of modern farming practices. Nutrient-deficient soil produces nutrient-deficient crops. And sadly, most commercial produce has substantially lower vitamin and mineral levels than the same foods has decades ago. (Organic food fares better.)

Final Thoughts

Taking a dietary supplements cannot compensate for a poor diet. For optimal health, the evidence is clear that eating a wide variety of minimally processed whole foods (foods that are as close to their natural form as possible) is the best way to prevent disease and improve health. There are certainly some situations when vitamins and supplements make sense and are appropriate, but it’s not wise to view them as a replacement for real food.

Take good care,

Dr. Josh