Food or supplements?

Several reports in mainstream media over the past few weeks have highlighted that using supplements may not be beneficial to health. This revelation is especially disturbing given that national health surveys indicate about 50% of Americans use supplements. Since when did it become normal for healthy adults and children to take supplements on a regular basis in the first place? We make the assumption that taking supplements is a risk-free way to round out our nutritional needs when in fact, using a vitamin supplement should not be taken lightly. Why? Here are 6 reasons:

1. Most major health organizations (including the American Dietetic Association, CDC, and the Mayo Clinic) say food should be the primary source of our nutrients. Instead of finding ways to encourage the consumption of food, we’ve subconsciously condoned the replacement of food with supplements. With this replacement comes major ramifications for food culture in our country, and really, the entire world.

2. There are very specific cases for people who need supplements, and they typically are explained by failures in biology. Calcium for older women (who are no longer good at harnessing dietary calcium). Vitamin D for those who are unable to efficiently make their own (because they don’t produce enough of the enzyme that activates vitamin D). For those of us who have no biological reasons behind nutrient deficiencies, relying on supplements shouldn’t be our excuse for (or response to) not eating real food.

3. The regulations for dietary supplements are different from those for food. In a nutshell, they are more lax. If you do choose to take a supplement, it would be wise to investigate the company to see what quality control procedures they have in place.

4. Independent evaluations of supplements show that some don’t contain the levels of micronutrients they purport to contain.

5. There are instances in which there can be too much of a good thing. It’s much easier to overdose on a vitamin or mineral when it’s in supplement form than when it comes in the form of food.

6. We make a huge assumption that taking a pill form of micronutrients is equivalent to getting micronutrients from food. Just because calcium has been associated with stronger bones doesn’t mean pure calcium is going to do a better job than calcium from kale. Little evidence connects taking a vitamin or mineral in its pure form to prevention of a specific disease. Recent research is making it painfully obvious that while micronutrients may correlate with some health outcomes, we don’t know everything about their mechanisms of action in other areas.

For more on dietary supplements, check out this earlier post on the GoodGuide blog.

About Sheila Viswanathan

Sheila Viswanathan focuses on educating individuals on how to make healthier dietary choices. She received her doctoral degree in Nutrition and Public Health from Teachers College, Columbia University and is certified as a registered dietitian.
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2 Responses to Food or supplements?

  1. I agree with the 6 reasons shown above, because before I don’t skipped taking a food supplement everyday, with out knowing that eating a lot of foods and a regular exercise is a much better way to have a healthy living. No offense to the food supplement companies, but for me and my family, we prefer taking loads of healthy foods and have a regular exercise.

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