For many busy people, juggling work, family, school and other responsibilities makes the idea of preparing balanced, nutritious meals every day seem like an added burden. To save time, they eat fast food on the run and quick-cooking processed foods at home, supplementing their diet with capsules and powders that are marketed as vitamins and minerals but are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
A quick bite and a pill can save time and effort in the moment. But in the long run, the convenience of the American diet can result in chronically poor health, which costs significantly more in both money and time than people think they are saving up front.
"Real, whole foods contain a wide array of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber that work in balance to promote health,” said Angela Charlton, R.D.N., a registered dietitian and nutritionist with Carilion Clinic. “Taking high-dose supplements can throw off that balance, altering absorption, bioavailability and function of nutrients. Fiber in whole plant foods also helps maintain the integrity of the gut—one of the most important parts of our immune systems.”
Benefits of Supplements
Disease and environmental factors can cause nutritional deficiencies even with a healthy diet, so there are times when taking supplements makes sense.
“It can be very challenging to obtain adequate amounts of vitamin D in our area, and regions further north, due to wintertime limitations in sun light, which our bodies convert to vitamin D,” Charlton explained. “Food sources include fatty fish, fortified foods and milk products, but it is difficult to consume adequate amounts of this important vitamin from diet alone.”
According to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), people who may require supplements include:
- People over age 50 who have trouble absorbing naturally occurring vitamin B12
- Strict vegetarians, who may need more vitamin B12
- Pregnant women, who have increased need for folic acid, a B vitamin
- Individuals who are dark-skinned, elderly or obese or who are rarely outdoors and live in northern latitudes may require supplemental vitamin D
- People at risk for osteoporosis who need more calcium
- People with medical problems that limit the body’s ability to consume or absorb enough nutrients for health
Charlton also recommends taking an omega-3 fatty acid supplementation.
“This supplement in addition to regular consumption of fatty fish can play a role in the medical management of high triglycerides and coronary artery disease,” she said.
Potential Risks of Supplements
Whole foods are complex, containing a variety of nutrients that work in synergy to produce beneficial effects. Fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes all include dietary fiber along with other essential nutrients, which work together to help prevent heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Taking supplements instead of eating these foods bypasses all of those health benefits, while filling your belly at each meal with foods that do not promote good health.
Studies have shown that certain supplements can carry additional risks. For example, iron supplements can interfere with the effectiveness of antibiotics and other medications and the pills can cause effects ranging from constipation to death. And Charlton cautions that fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K can become toxic at increased levels.
“High-dose supplementation of beta-carotene (a precursor to vitamin A) and vitamin E have been shown to increase risk of certain forms of cancer,” she noted. “Eating more whole-plant food sources of nutrients, on the other hand, is known to decrease cancer risk.”
What to Look For
AICR advises consumers to be wary of marketing terms used on supplement packaging. The FDA does not define or validate terms such as “natural,” “standardized,” “verified” or “certified.” AICR makes the following recommendations for consumers who choose to take dietary supplements:
- Consult with your provider before combining supplements with prescription medications
- Consult with your provider before taking supplements if you are receiving chemotherapy or radiation treatment
- Consult with your provider about supplements if you are planning to undergo surgery
- Do not take supplements to treat self-diagnosed ailments
- Be as careful with timing and dosing supplements as you are with prescription medications
AICR also notes that industry “seals of approval” can be informative if they are from U.S. Pharmacopeia, NSF International or ConsumerLab.com, as they verify that the product contains the ingredients on the label. Those industry seals do not guarantee that the product is safe or effective, however.
For most healthy people, whole foods are the simplest, most efficient way to give your body most of the nutrients it needs. Whole foods are more economical and easier to incorporate into your regular diet than you think, and the time and money you save by being healthy is immeasurable.