Reasons to get vitamins from supplements versus food

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Today we continue our conversation about a heavily debated topic: “Should I be getting my vitamins from food or from supplements?”

Last week, I discussed some reasons why getting your vitamins from food versus supplements could be beneficial. To recap, consuming your vitamins through food versus supplements may be best:
1. If you have a varied, whole foods diet without large dietary restrictions or special needs.

2. Because the combination of chemicals within food (versus isolated like in supplements) may be important for vitamin absorption and efficacy.

3. Because vitamin supplements are not well regulated, and there are contamination and labeling concerns for many supplements currently on the market.

However, there are a host of reasons why it would be better to get vitamins from supplements versus food:

1. Poor food combinations can actually hinder absorption of essential nutrients.

2. The vitamin composition of foods is far from consistent: it varies according to soil quality, plant source, food processing, and cooking method.

3. If you have a specific dietary restriction or deficiency that needs to be remedied, supplements may be a more efficient way to attain normal vitamin levels.

Let’s look at these reasons to consume vitamins from supplements versus food one at a time.

Reasons to consume your vitamins from supplements versus food

1. Poor food combinations can actually hinder absorption of essential nutrients.

Though a whole food may be a great package of vitamins and nutrients, there are some important combinations within and between foods that could also block the absorption of these nutrients. For example, chemicals within a food like phytates in leafy greens and grains can actually inhibit your body from absorbing iron, B vitamins, and other minerals. Also, some vitamins or minerals can compete for absorption in your intestinal wall, so certain food combinations can result in lower absorption. For example, zinc and iron require the same mechanism for absorption, so eating high levels of zinc and iron at the same meal (which would happen if you’re eating seafood and meat together, for example) can result in suboptimal absorption. Lastly, if you have intestinal damage due to a food allergy or sensitivity (most often gluten or lactose intolerance), the absorption of all of your vitamins and minerals may be reduced because of damage to the lining of your small intestine.

So, if you have a specific vitamin deficiency or are taking supplements, preparing your foods to optimize vitamin and mineral absorption is important.

2. Variability in vitamin composition can reduce the presence and bioavailability of vitamins from food.

Though the nutrition facts panel gives us a hard number for each vitamin and nutrient (e.g., X milligrams of vitamin C in an orange), there is actually a wide variety in the amount of nutrients that are present in each piece of produce. The variability can be due to the soil it is grown in, the ripeness of the fruit or vegetable when it is harvested, how long it is stored before you eat it, or your cooking method. There is some evidence that food that is grown using organic methods may have higher nutrient content, but the jury is still out on that.

If you are eating a varied, whole foods diet but you still do not have normal levels of certain vitamins or minerals, it could be a sign that either the soil, storage, or cooking method is resulting in lower bioavailability than you expect, and it may be time to try a supplement.

3. If you have a specific dietary restriction or deficiency that needs to be remedied, supplements may be better suited than food to your needs.

Because of all of these issues we discussed – the variability within foods, and the potential vitamin blockers – if you find that you have a specific deficiency, it may be better to supplement in addition to increasing your consumption of food that are rich in those vitamins. As discussed in the post about consuming vitamins from food, taking vitamin or mineral supplements has been shown to be effective for improving health outcomes when the person is actually deficient in the vitamin or mineral.

It’s important to note that if you have a particular allergy or restriction to your diet (I’m talking about excluding whole food groups), you could be missing out on some key vitamins and minerals.

If you do have a large restriction in your diet, consider getting your vitamin and mineral levels tested on a more regular basis (about once per year) or if you’re feeling like something is not quite right.

As you can see, vitamin supplements are not all bad, and they can be incredibly important for people will allergies, deficiencies, or for people who live in areas where the soil does not have certain minerals.

If you do find that you have a vitamin or mineral deficiency, discuss with your doctor or pharmacist the best dose, brand, and times to take your supplement so you can get back to tip top shape. And don’t forget to look at what aspects of your diet or other lifestyle habits may have contributed to that deficiency, and make the necessary changes to keep you healthy!

Next week, I’ll wrap this question up with some tips to optimize your vitamins and minerals! Have another nutrition-related question you’d like to see answered?

Email me!

What has been your experience with vitamin supplements? Do you have any you take regularly?

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