Written by Lourdes Castros, MS, RDN

In a world where you can press a button and get groceries, flowers, and a case of wine delivered in a couple of hours without ever leaving your couch, the concept of delayed gratification, even when it comes to the health effects from your food, feels a bit unnecessary. It also makes nutritional supplements seem like a much more efficient alternative to good health than sifting through dietary advice and figuring out how to eat a balanced diet. After all, it doesn’t take much to pop a pill or scoop up a bit of powder.

But is the nutrition derived from supplements as good as that from food? Does it matter if you get your nutrition from food or from a pill? Let’s consider some questions.

Given the variables with food ingredients (fresh vs. frozen, organic vs. conventional, etc.), wouldn’t a supplement be a better option?

While it is true that there may be some variability in the amount of a nutrient found in a food, the greatest health benefits may not be from the nutrient alone. The players accompanying nutrients often play a vital role. Referred to as the “entourage effect,” this theory suggests that the synergy between nutrients and other beneficial compounds found in food helps transport and unlock receptors that are responsible for an increase in nutrient potency. In some cases, such as the need for vitamin D to absorb calcium, these synergies have been clinically proven, but there are likely many more waiting to be verified.

The entourage effect could explain why researchers at the NIH have found that people who eat seafood like Secret Island salmon one to four times a week are less likely to die of heart disease, while omega-3 supplements were not effective in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

This same phenomenon was seen with beta-carotene. While eating foods rich in beta-carotene (along with other antioxidants including vitamins C and E) seems to protect against some kinds of cancer, research shows that beta-carotene supplements may increase the risk of heart disease and certain cancers in people who smoke or drink heavily.

If a little amount of a nutrient is good, wouldn’t a lot of it be better, making supplements a good idea?

If you are going for quantity, then a supplement is your answer, as it offers very concentrated forms of a nutrient. But our body is very good at regulating what we put into it. And consuming more than you need may not make a difference and can even be detrimental to your health.

But if you get your vitamin C from food, say from oranges or red bell peppers (two excellent sources), it is virtually impossible to feel those side effects since not only is the amount of vitamin C within safe levels, it is also tied up within other nutrients, slowing its absorption and allowing for a more gradual intake.

Is there a time when I should consider a supplement?

In addition to using a multi-vitamin complex as an insurance policy, there are other good reasons to turn to supplements. These include treating deficiencies due to a chronic condition, illness, or other physiological needs. Another is obtaining nutrients such as Vitamin D that are notoriously challenging to obtain from food alone. In all instances, however, it is always best to consult your healthcare professional about the supplements you may need. 

Giving yourself a little “boost” of something may help you reach some health goals, but it will never replace the foundation of a nutritious diet and a healthy lifestyle. Ultimately, the foods you eat and the ingredients you choose matter. Research has shown that obtaining nutrients directly from food rather than supplements is the best option. Eating a varied and nutritious diet over the course of many years is the best way to ensure that your body is saturated with good nutrients. While popping a pill may be easy, if you are looking to achieve optimal health, nutrition is best obtained directly from your food.

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