Foods vs Supplements – Can One Replace the Other?

vitamin and orange

Nutritional supplements are often marketed as an insurance policy – “Take this one convenient capsule and you’ll hit all of your daily nutrient requirements! No need to fret over food.” While I like the idea of stressing less about food, I don’t feel that supplements are always the answer. Nutritional supplements certainly have their place, but they can’t replace food entirely. If you’ve ever wondered about foods vs supplements, this post is for you! I’ll be covering the pros, cons, and considerations for getting your nutrients from both foods and supplements.

Foods vs Supplements

When trying to decide between foods vs supplements meet your needs, there are four main factors to consider – effectiveness, safety, convenience, and mentality.

Effectiveness

Which works better? Supplements or food?

It depends on your goal, but more often than not, foods meet our nutrient needs more effectively than supplements. For example, one large study (based on NHANES data) showed that the health benefits of vitamin A, vitamin K, zinc, magnesium, copper were limited to people that got these nutrients from food sources. (1)

Supplements companies often claim that their products are an effective way to improve health conditions or your overall wellbeing, but those claims are often not rigorously or independently verified. Wondering how to find out if your supplement works? I wrote a post all about researching and purchasing supplements. (Read it here!)

It is also worth noting that foods also contain a mix of nutrients such as fiber, phytonutrients, and antioxidants. So when you’re trying to get more vitamin C by eating an orange, you’re also going to get added benefits like fiber. (Not to mention, an orange tastes and smells a lot better than a capsule.)

But – there are certain cases where supplements do a better job of helping us meet our needs than foods:

  • Some individuals have a harder time meeting their B12 needs than others. Vegans typically get little B12 from their diets, as B12 is mostly found in animal products. Some people also absorb B12 poorly due to old age, genetic mutations, or gastrointestinal issues. In these cases, it would be wise to take a B12 supplement.
  • Some people have increased needs and failing to meet these needs could pose a significant risk. Pregnant women and women trying to conceive need more folic acid to support the growth of a healthy nervous system for their babies.
  • People with iron-deficiency anemia may also need supplemental iron to get their levels back to normal.
  • Some people (myself included) have trouble getting enough vitamin D. After testing vitamin D levels, a doctor may recommend a specific dosage to help levels return to normal.

Safety

Are foods safer than supplements?

Not always. For example, excess intake of calcium from supplements has actually been associated with a higher rate of death from cancer. (1) Vitamin A is another good example – taking excessive doses of it can lead to an increased risk of mortality. (2) More is not always better.

It is also hard to guarantee the quality and accuracy of the information shown on supplement labels. (What you see ain’t always what you get.) Wondering how to be a smarter supplement shopper? I wrote about that here.

Convenience

Aren’t supplements more convenient than food?

Yep. Convenience is definitely a benefit of supplements. If you’re busy and running low on mental bandwidth, it’s easier to take a multivitamin than it is to plan out a day’s worth of nutritious meals. If you have increased needs (like more fiber, iron, or folic acid) it may also be a lot easier to meet your needs by using a supplement.

However, relying on supplements alone can cause you to miss out on the full spectrum of nutritional, emotional, and social benefits of food.

Mentality

What’s the harm in taking supplements, just in case?

If you’re consistently relying on supplements to meet your goals, you probably need to give your habits a second look. A supplement can’t make up for a crappy diet. If you’re struggling to meet your needs with nutritious meals, ask yourself:

  • Can you leave more time for your self-care?
  • Do you need to ask for some help from family members to plan and prepare meals?
  • Can you think of some easier meals to take on the go?
  • Do you need to consult with a dietitian for more help with meeting your needs?

For most people, there’s not much harm in taking a multivitamin, but when more and more individual supplements are added into the mix, that’s where you can run into trouble and risk overdoing it.

Did I miss any of your questions on foods or supplements? Let’s talk in the comments!

References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30959527
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4452429/#B137

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