Nutritional supplements are skyrocketing in popularity as people seek ways to compensate for deficiencies in their diet and lower the risk of future health problems. No wonder! Up to 80% of chronic health problems have a strong diet and lifestyle component. With the poor quality of the American diet, people are looking for easy ways to improve their health and protect against chronic health problems.
Unfortunately, rather than making dietary upgrades, some people reach for a bottle of supplements that they buy online or at a local health food store. They’re in good company! According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40 to 50% of Americans take one or more supplements and that number continues to rise.
Some people need supplements because they have health issues that increase their body’s requirement for supplemental vitamins or minerals or because they eat a restricted diet. Plus, women who are pregnant need supplemental folate and iron. Others who don’t meet these criteria take one or more supplements as an “insurance policy, despite a lack of evidence that taking high doses of vitamins or minerals is protective against chronic illness.
Foods and Supplements May Not Behave the Same
Getting vitamins and minerals from a supplement isn’t the same as getting them from food. Even if you take a supplement as directed, there’s no assurance that the active ingredient will make it into your cells and provide the benefits you expect. When you get vitamins and minerals from food, they’re part of a food matrix consisting of water, phytonutrients, fiber, and other minerals. When you eat food, you don’t consume vitamins and minerals in isolation: you get the whole package as nature intended!
What effect does the food matrix have? In some cases, the food matrix protects the vitamin or mineral and enhances absorption by the intestinal tract. In other cases, the matrix can reduce intestinal absorption. Yet it’s clear that nature packages vitamins and minerals in a way that your body recognizes. This packaging is lacking when you take supplements. How can we assume the effects will be the same?
Because supplements lack a food matrix, absorption is less predictable. In addition, once you remove the food matrix, you lose the potential synergy between that supplement and other micronutrients in that food. Scientists believe that the benefits of nutrient-dense foods comes from the interplay between vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients and isn’t the direct result of a single vitamin or mineral. Studies also show that isolated vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients behave differently in isolation than they do when packaged into food.
Examples of How Supplemental Nutrients Behave Differently than Those in Food
You might think that taking a nutrient in a pill form is time expedient but isolated components can have unexpected effects and may not offer the outcome you expect. For example, studies show a diet rich in beta-carotene may lower the risk of some cancers, such as breast cancer. Good sources of beta-carotene include carrots, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, apricots, and other orange fruits and vegetables. Leafy greens are also an excellent source, although the chlorophyll in these foods mask the orange color you see with most beta-carotene-rich foods. Despite studies suggesting beta-carotene protects against cancer, a study of smokers found that taking beta-carotene as a supplement increased the risk of lung cancer. So, you can’t say that an isolated nutrient will have the same impact as that nutrient in food form.
Another example of an isolated mineral behaving differently is calcium. Research shows that taking calcium supplements increases the risk of kidney stones in people prone to them. In contrast, eating a calcium-rich diet doesn’t raise the risk and actually lowers the odds of developing painful kidney stones. Some earlier studies also linked calcium supplements with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. The same isn’t true of dietary calcium.
Nutrients Attached to Food Have Other Benefits
The matrix of food not only affects the absorption of nutrients, but it may also offer additional benefits. For example, the fiber in a food matrix increases satiety, so you feel less hungry. When you remove the fiber, the food is less satiating, and you feel hungrier. The loss of fiber also has a negative effect on blood sugar and metabolic health. That’s why ultra-processed food is less satisfying than whole, unprocessed foods. You won’t get the same satiety benefits from swallowing a pill!
The Bottom Line
There are cases where taking a supplement serves a purpose. If you’re on a restrictive diet, are pregnant, have a medical problem that depletes a nutrient, take a medication that increases the loss of a particular nutrient, or don’t consume certain foods, a supplement can help you make up for that deficiency.
For example, vegans need supplemental vitamin B12 since there’s little or no vitamin B12 in plant-based foods. Women who are pregnant need supplemental folate and iron. People who get little or no sun exposure can benefit from a vitamin D supplement. But even in these cases, it’s best to check with a physician before taking one. Don’t buy it because you saw a convincing ad or because a friend recommended it. Do your research on that supplement and pick a supplier. Also, don’t use supplements as a substitute for eating a healthy diet. As you can see, the best way to get vitamins and minerals is from whole, nutrient-dense foods, not a bottle of pills. Plus, food tastes better! Enjoy
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CDC.gov. “Dietary Supplement Use Among U.S. Adults Has Increased Since NHANES III (1988–1994)”
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Harvard Health Publishing. “Should you get your nutrients from food or from supplements?”
ScientificAmerican.com. “Do vitamins in pills differ from those in food?”
WebMD.com. “Calcium Supplements Tied to Kidney Stone Risk”
Mayo Clinic. “Beta Carotene (Oral Route)”