In today’s world most of us tend to look for the easy button, the short cut, or the most efficient way to get the best results. And some of that holds true for our diet and eating habits as well. I’m sure you’ve seen advertisements for a supplement, capsule, or gummy that will provide “all your nutrient needs” or “replaces your recommended serving of fruits and veggies.” Marketers know we want to be healthy and want it to be easy; but are all these claims really true? Do supplements actually work the same way nutrients coming from food do? Let’s review the purpose of supplements and key scenarios of when you might need to include them as part of a well-balanced diet.
What are supplements?
Supplements and food fortification (adding in nutrients that were otherwise not there) were created to be just that- a SUPPLEMENT to your normal dietary intake. In short, supplements are an artificially created version, or synthetic version, of the vitamins and minerals found in the food we eat. Most of us know that a well-rounded diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins is ideal. But we also realize how hard it can be to achieve a balanced diet each day. Our government and scientists realized this as well.
As far back as the 1920s, food manufacturers were adding nutrients to foods, like iodine to salt and B-vitamins to flour and grain products. This happened on the recommendation of health professionals and scientists, mainly to avoid common health conditions associated with severe nutrient deficiency. Outside of food fortification, most people have taken a multi vitamin and mineral supplement at some point in their lives, either on the recommendation of a health professional or because they were led to believe it was the healthy thing to do.
How do supplements work in our body?
Most supplements pose no harm to our body, as our filtering organs, like liver and kidneys, are great at removing excess amounts. But that also means we waste a lot of supplements we consume. If you’re spending a lot of money on supplements, you might literally be flushing that purchase down the toilet. It is important to note that some nutrients can be saved and stored in our body, and when taken in too high of quantity can become toxic. Anytime you start taking a new supplement, vitamin or mineral, make sure you are aware of the tolerable upper intake level (UL) and consult with your medical professional to determine if you are even deficient of that nutrient.
Nutrients coming directly from the food we eat often provide greater benefits than supplementing specific vitamins and minerals alone. Real food provides fiber, bulk and water-volume that help us feel full and satisfied. This is why your daily serving of fruits and vegetables can never really be replaced by a once-a-day tablet. You’ll never get the same wholistic benefits that come from healthy foods, like reduced risk of cancer and other chronic conditions, by eating supplements alone.
What foods are high in vitamins and minerals?
Color is often a good representation of the vitamins and minerals a food contains. You’ve likely heard “Eat a Rainbow.” This refers to not only to increasing visual appeal of the food we eat, but also encourages eating foods that provide different vitamins and minerals. For example, orange foods contain beta-carotene, a pre-curser for Vitamin A. Whereas dark green, leafy vegetables contain higher quantities of Vitamin K, a nutrient we need for blood clotting and bone health. Plus, eating a variety of foods at mealtime naturally complements the effectiveness of nutrient absorption. For example, Vitamin C helps with Calcium absorption (have you had calcium fortified orange juice before?). Broccoli contains both Calcium and Vitamin C, so you actually absorb more of the available calcium in broccoli compared to taking it in supplemental form.
When do I need supplements?
Supplements are not the key to health and wellbeing. Eating a diet of soda and chips, but taking a daily multivitamin and mineral will not make you healthy. However, if you do have a limited diet, or picky eaters at home, it’s not always a bad idea to include a multivitamin and mineral every now and then. I have nostalgic memories of growing up, and on busy weeknights when my mother didn’t want to cook a full meal, we would have buttered noodles with a Flintstone™ vitamin on the side. I LOVED those dinners as a kid!
If you choose to take a supplement, here are some key things to keep in mind:
- Vitamin and mineral supplements are not regulated by any governing body and therefore could vary greatly in advertised quantity or potency.
- The human body absorbs nutrients best from real foods. You will never absorb 100% of the quantity listed on the supplement package (or from food for that matter). The ONLY synthetic vitamin absorbed better than its real version is Folic Acid (synthetic version of Folate).
- Certain lifestyles or conditions may need supplements more than the average person. Check with your healthcare provider to see if you need to supplement certain nutrients based on your lifestyle. Some common lifestyles or conditions that may needs supplements include:
- Vegan diets
- Increased risk for certain chronic conditions, like osteoporosis
- When choosing a vitamin and or mineral supplement, choose a version that provides less than 100% of your daily needs. Product labels provide recommendations based on a 2,000-calorie diet. You are also likely consuming fortified foods that provide supplemental vitamins and minerals as well.
Remember, supplements are meant to SUPPLEMENT your normal dietary intake. Try as best you can include a variety of colorful foods in your diet and consume supplemental vitamins and minerals in safe amounts.
Charlotte Mapes is a Registered Dietitian and a Wellness Strategy Manager with Vitality. She received her BS in nutrition at Michigan State University and received her master’s at the University of Alabama. Food is one of her favorite things and in her free time, loves adventure travel with her husband and senior dog.