Tag Archives: vitamins

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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Much ado about nothing: Supplement-free dietary supplements

Dietary supplements, including vitamins, minerals, and herbs, are used by millions of people every day. In fact, over 50% of Americans regularly take dietary supplements. Maybe you are one of them. If so, you should be aware of some recent news that once again raises concerns about supplement use.

This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


 

Miracle cure pill bottle

The most common reason people report taking dietary supplements is to improve or maintain their health in general, but many take them for specific reasons such as bone health or weight loss. Anecdotal evidence suggests that people who take supplements are healthier than people who don’t. However, supplement users are more likely to eat better, exercise, and not smoke, all of which contribute to good health. [more details here.]

Given the claims made by supplement manufacturers, you may be surprised to learn that there is very little evidence to suggest that taking dietary supplements can improve your health. In fact, no scientific organization recommends the routine use of dietary supplements. Among the few exceptions is folic acid supplementation for women who are or who may become pregnant to prevent neural tube defects in the developing fetus. There aren’t many others.

While there is support for using vitamin or mineral supplements to address individual deficiencies, there is no reason to believe that taking supplements will do much to make a healthy person healthier. The fact that all supplements contain the statement, “This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease,” should tell you something. At best, taking dietary supplements will cause few, if any, benefits; at worst, they may do harm.

There have long been concerns about the safety and efficacy of dietary supplements. Ironically, this is by design. According to the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) manufacturers do not need to prove that their products are effective, only that they are safe. That said, there are instances in which the safety of dietary supplements has been questioned. [you can find tips for using dietary supplements safely here] Some can interfere with the way that other prescription and over-the-counter drugs work. Others may make certain health problems, like high blood pressure or diabetes, worse. And there is a concern that people might use dietary supplements to treat a condition rather than seeking medical help.

You may have seen in the news recently that the New York Attorney General is taking action against four major chain retailers for selling fraudulent and contaminated dietary supplements. DNA analysis showed that many of the supplements examined were completely lacking the active ingredient and contained other ingredients not listed on the label. In one case, a sample of St. John’s Wort contained no actual St. John’s Wort extract, but did contain the extract of a common house plant!

Some supplements undergo quality testing by independent labs, including U.S. Pharmacopeia and NSF International, and have labels which suggest that you are purchasing the actual substance. Keep in mind that this does not guarantee that the supplement will be safe or effective, just that it has been tested for purity.

Despite these questions about supplement purity, safety, and health benefits, there is nothing necessarily wrong with taking dietary supplements. If you choose to take supplements be aware of potential health risks, know that you may not be getting what you pay for, and don’t expect any miracles. And always make sure you tell your doctor which supplements you take to avoid any adverse reactions with other medications.

Finally, remember that no amount of dietary supplements can match the health benefits of good nutrition and regular physical activity.

Stealthy Healthy Eating

My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week is about the many processed foods that include added nutrients, primarily vitamins, minerals, and fiber, to make them healthier. While this seems like a good thing—helping people get enough essential nutrients, even if they eat a poor diet—there are drawbacks to using these foods instead of eating actual food that contains these nutrients.


What if there was a way to get the benefits of eating vegetables without having to eat any vegetables? This may be a dream for millions of American children and adults who don’t eat enough vegetables.

Thanks to creative food processing, the healthy components of vegetables can be added to many foods, including soda, candy bars, and other sweets. Books and websites contain recipes for adding pureed vegetables to brownies and other baked goods. There is even a new line of prepackaged pureed vegetables to use!

The recommended intake of vegetables ranges from one cup per day for young children to 3 cups for adults. A simpler guideline is to fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables at each meal. The goal should be to eat a variety of vegetables throughout the week.

There are plenty of good reasons for people to eat vegetables. Most vegetables are a low-calorie source of essential vitamins and minerals. The dietary fiber found in vegetables (and fruits and whole grains) plays a role in maintaining a healthy body weight, lowering cholesterol, and reducing the risk of some cancers.

Fiber is increasingly added to processed foods including granola bars and energy bars. It is possible to get up to half of your daily recommended intake of fiber by eating a single Fiber One bar. That is the equivalent of a cup or more of most vegetables! Considering that many of these snacks are essentially candy bars, they are a tasty way to get fiber.

Vitamins and minerals have long been available as supplements and added to certain foods, including products made from grains like pasta and bread. But now you can get vitamins in many soft drinks, many of which have as much sugar as soda. And calcium is added to a variety of foods from breakfast cereals to snacks.

There are, of course, some benefits of doing this. People who don’t eat a healthy diet can get enough essential nutrients through these products. Some of these foods are low in calories so they can help people who are trying to lose weight.

While these “hidden” nutrients may seem like a good solution for people who don’t eat enough vegetables, this form of stealthy healthy eating may have some negative consequences.

These processed foods may be high in sugar, fat, and calories which could contribute to weight gain. The fact that these foods are designed to taste good—many include chocolate—may lead people to overeat. Aside from excess calories, eating far too much fiber could cause GI discomfort or other health problems.

More concerning, though, is the fact that these foods set an expectation that healthy foods should be sweet. This is particularly problematic in children, who may avoid eating vegetables (and other healthy foods) in favor of sweet drinks and snacks that contain the same nutrients.

Additionally, getting vitamins, minerals, and fiber through processed foods keeps people from learning how to make healthy choices and prepare real food. This has consequences for developing healthy eating habits in both children and adults.

Focusing on getting individual nutrients over eating a variety of healthy foods is thought to be an important cause of the current obesity epidemic. Relying on processed foods with added vitamins, minerals, and fiber may be doing more harm than good to your health.

The bottom line is that you should get your nutrients from real food and balance what you eat with daily physical activity. Remember, good health comes from making smart choices, not from a bottle or a box!