by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Supplements

Jun 18 2007

Foods vs. Supplements

A writer for a women’s magazine asks: If you want to get more of a specific nutrient (lycopene, for example), is it better to take a dietary supplement or to eat foods containing that nutrient? What benefits do you get from eating a whole food that you might miss if you took a supplement instead?

My response: Unless you have been diagnosed with a vitamin or mineral deficiency and need to replenish that nutrient in a great big hurry, it is always better to get nutrients from foods—the way nature intended. I can think of three benefits of whole foods as compared to supplements: (1) you get the full variety of nutrients—vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, etc–in that food, not just the one nutrient in the supplement; (2) the amounts of the various nutrients are balanced so they don’t interfere with each other’s digestion, absorption, or metabolism; and (3) there is no possibility of harm from taking nutrients from foods (OK. Polar bear liver is an exception; its level of vitamin A is toxic). In contrast, high doses of single nutrients not only fail to improve health but also can make things worse, as has been shown in some clinical trials of the effects of beta-carotene, vitamin E, and folic acid, for example, on heart disease or cancer. And foods taste a whole lot better, of course. For more on this, see chapter 37 in What to Eat on “Supplements and Health Food.”