Reasons to get vitamins from food versus supplements

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Hello again! Thanks for the great comments on my post about dietary sources of calcium. I’m glad you found it helpful and understandable. Have a nutrition question you’d like to see answered? Let me take a crack at it! Email me at samantha.attard[at]gmail.com. Today’s question is a complex one, so I’ll be splitting it up into a series of posts over the coming weeks.

Today’s question: “Should I be getting my vitamins from food or from supplements?”

This is a tough question that the nutrition community has been debating for decades. I think it became such a big issue because humans have been using food medicinally for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that we began identifying the active chemical compounds (like vitamins and minerals) that were responsible for these beneficial health effects. Once we did determine that scurvy was due to low vitamin C, or that rickets was because of a vitamin D deficiency, we naturally became interested in isolating these compounds from food and selling them to people to improve health. But we are far from knowing whether it’s best to get your vitamins and minerals from food or from supplements…there are pros and cons to each method. Today, we’re going to tackle the reasons why it may be better to get your vitamins from food versus supplements.

Reasons to consume your vitamins from food versus supplements

1. If you have a varied, whole foods diet without large dietary restrictions or special needs, there may be little beneficial effect of adding vitamin supplements to your diet.
2. The combination of chemicals in food (versus the isolated compounds found in supplements) can improve vitamin absorption and efficacy.
3. Vitamin supplements are not well regulated, and there are contamination and labeling concerns for many supplements currently on the market.

More detailed explanations of these reasons to consume vitamins from food versus supplements can be found after the jump!

1. If you have a varied whole foods diet, research has not found that general vitamin supplementation improves health outcomes.

The effectiveness of vitamin and mineral supplements for health is mixed. Giving folic acid to women who are deficient has dramatically decreased the prevalence of neural tube defects. Vitamin C is the cure for the symptoms of scurvy. However, when researchers gave vitamin E and selenium to members of the general population, their risk of prostate cancer actually increased. What are the causes of these differences?

The outcomes differed because the folic acid or vitamin C supplements were given to people who were deficient in those vitamins, versus the vitamin E/selenium which was given to people who did not have a deficiency. This vitamin E study and several other epidemiological studies have suggested that vitamin supplements in people who don’t have any deficiencies does not in any way improve health outcomes like cancer or mortality.

Thus, taking supplements for general healthfulness may not be the best idea.

2. The combination of chemicals within food (versus isolated like in supplements) may be important for vitamin absorption and efficacy, making food a better source of vitamins than supplements.

A seminal paper by Dr. Rui Hai Liu suggested that it’s the combination of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and phytochemicals present in whole foods that make them so effective for improving health. This hypothesis would explain why a regular supplement or multivitamin would not have the same beneficial effects as eating whole foods. However, reproducing the chemical structure of food is difficult if not impossible. So, quality and quantity of the chemical thumbprint that makes an apple healthy has yet to be identified and reproduced for a supplement form.

If you are taking a supplement, I would suggest taking it with food (unless it specifically recommends that you take it on an empty stomach), so that you can benefit from the range of chemicals available on the food to help the absorption and effectiveness of the vitamin.

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

Yep. You heard that right. Turns out that herbs and vitamin supplements are not regulated by the FDA. And unfortunately, studies have shown that there are a lot of supplements on the market that are not what they say they are. Studies have found that there is contamination by wheat, rice, or other fillers, as well as inaccurate drug amounts. And note, it’s not just the cheap vitamins that are not what they say they are. The same problems have been found for vitamin brands that are more expensive.

If you are buying a supplement, look for a quality testing seal by NSF International, US Pharmacopeia, or Consumer Labs.

Other great supplement safety info can be found here.

As you can see, there are some pretty compelling reasons why getting vitamins from food versus supplements may be better for your health. but that’s only one half of the story. In our next post, I’ll delve into the reasons why it would be a good idea to supplement with vitamins instead of from food.

Do you take any vitamin supplements? Why did you choose to supplement? I’d love to hear about your experiences!

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