Can supplements replace a healthy diet?

It’s no secret that eating lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein sources such as fish, soy, and legumes (beans) is good for you. In addition to providing carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats, these foods are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

For example, Vitamins A and C act as antioxidants, reducing cellular damage from free radicals that may lead to heart disease and some cancers. Calcium, a mineral primarily found in dairy products, is important for bone health. Fiber in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is important for digestive health and lowering blood cholesterol.

In addition to the foods we eat, we can also get these nutrients from supplements. In fact, many of us probably take vitamin and mineral supplements already. But does taking supplements mean that you don’t have to eat a variety of healthy foods? The answer is no! In my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week I provide several reasons why replacing healthy foods with supplements is not recommended.

supplement pills

First, foods contain components beyond the nutrient you wish to supplement. For example, citrus fruits are high in vitamin C, as well as other vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Taking a vitamin C supplement instead of eating an orange means that you will miss out on those other nutrients.

Second, replacing foods with supplements may lead to making less healthy food choices. For example, you may not eat as many fruits, vegetables, or whole grains if you are getting adequate fiber through supplements or other fiber-fortified foods.

The best sources of fiber in the diet are fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains; meat, dairy, and refined grains contain little fiber. You can also get fiber from supplements, which can be added to foods and beverages, and fiber-fortified foods, in which fiber is added to foods that typically wouldn’t contain fiber.

But the health benefits are greater if you get fiber through healthy foods. For breakfast you could eat a healthy whole grain cereal or you could eat a chocolate chip granola bar that is fortified with fiber. Both contain fiber, but the granola bar has a lot more sugar, making it the less healthy choice.

Another example is fish and fish oil supplements. Many fish contain high levels of a type of fat called omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy fats improve blood lipids, lower inflammation, and reduce blood clotting, leading to a lower risk of heart attack and stroke. For this reason, eating at least two servings of fish per week, especially including salmon, mackerel, and tuna, is recommended.

You could also get these healthy fats by taking fish oil or other omega-3 fatty acid supplements. However, the health benefits of this approach are not as great as actually eating fish. In fact, most of the research showing benefits of fish oils involved studying people actually eating fish; the results for fish oil supplements are less consistent. It appears that you simply don’t get the same benefit from taking a fish oil supplement as you do from eating certain types of fish.

(You can find a good low-sci explanation of this research here: Source: Fish Oil Is Hugely Popular—But Should You Take It? | TIME)

The bottom line is that a healthy diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish and other lean protein sources is the best way to get the essential nutrients you need. There is no harm in taking a multivitamin/multimineral supplement to make up for inadequacies in your diet, but you shouldn’t replace healthy foods with supplements.

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