In an age of once-daily multivitamins and aisles upon aisles of supplements, it’s never been more convenient to tailor your personal nutrition needs at your local grocery store.
However, it’s important to remember these are called “supplements” for a reason. OMRF immunologist Eliza Chakravarty, M.D., says your journey to good health still needs to begin with food, not pills and capsules.
“Nothing replaces a healthy diet,” said Chakravarty. “Some people think that if they just take a multivitamin every day, then they can have chips and soda or whatever. But actually the best way to get your vitamins and nutrients is through a healthy diet.”
Fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains and healthy fats still represent the foundation of a wholesome diet. And the broader the variety in your cart, the better.
But if supplements contain the same vitamins and minerals as food, why is loading up on spinach, apples and almonds still the superior option?
For one, says Chakravarty, supplements are specific extracts of nutritional components to a healthy diet. When you’re eating natural foods, there’s a lot more nutritional punch in the food that the supplement doesn’t contain.
“The trace elements that are part of natural foods aren’t contained in supplements,” she said. “They simply can’t replicate the wide array of benefits and nutrients of real foods and the fiber and other vitamins they contain.”
Experts suggest that food offers three primary benefits over supplements: Greater nutrition from the complexity of foods, essential fiber to manage constipation and help prevent certain diseases, and protective substances like “phytochemicals” that occur naturally and can help prevent cancer, heart disease, diabetes and others. Many natural foods are also high in antioxidants.
“If you look at the drug store, grocery store or advertisements, there’s a lot of money to be made in supplements, so they’re pushed by manufacturers as the answer to your nutritional needs,” said Chakravarty. “I also think people consider supplements a shortcut to eating healthy because we’re busier today. We don’t have the time or the family structures to cook meals from scratch they way we did 50 years ago.”
As a result, people are eating on the run and consuming more processed foods because they’re more convenient. The supplement industry has capitalized on that on-the-go lifestyle, but if you’re already practicing a generally healthy and diverse diet, it’s unlikely you need extra vitamins.
Still, that’s not to say some people wouldn’t benefit from using them.
Chakravarty emphasized that women should take a calcium supplement, especially once they hit age 35, because of inevitable bone loss that occurs with menopause. Pregnant women or women thinking about getting pregnant should also take extra folic acid. Another item worth noting, she said, is most supplements are water soluble, so any excess of what your body needs will generally be passed in the urine and won’t cause a dangerous buildup in the urine. However, Vitamins D and A are fat soluable and can build up in the system, making them worth monitoring.
According to Chakravarty, it’s important to listen to your physician when it comes to individualized recommendations for specific supplements.
“If your doctor says you’re low in magnesium, take magnesium,” she said. “This is the actual purpose for supplements: to supplement your normal diet when needed. But for most of us, the biggest impact supplements have is on our bank accounts.”