Whole Foods vs. Supplements: To Take or Not to Take
by Lindsay Martin, MS, RD Hilton Head Health
A common question that arises from people seeking nutritional advice is this:
“As I strive to achieve my health goals, I want to do my best by getting all of my nutrition through whole foods. However, sometimes I question if there is something in a supplement I can’t get from my regular diet. I go into a supplement shop and spend money on numerous products that sound great, but I’m not 100% convinced they are ‘doing’ anything for me. What do I need to know in order to make the best decision for me?”
- Under the Dietary Supplement Health Education Health Act (DSHEA) dietary supplements are not approved by the FDA. The purity, safety, or effectiveness is not regulated.
- The US government does regulate foods for ingredients, additives, manufacturing practices, safety, and packaging.
- The only way a supplement would be removed for purchase is if the FDA shows the product is “unsafe”—this usually occurs if numerous people are experiencing unhealthy side effects. Example: Ephedra has been banned for years due it its ability to increase the risk of stroke, cardiovascular events, seizures, and more. However, it took over 10,000 complaints to remove Ephedra-based products from the shelves.
- The only way one would become toxic in a particular vitamin or mineral is if one takes too much in supplement form. Whole foods do not necessarily cause toxicity unless we are dealing with consistent high amounts such as eating pounds of carrots on a daily basis (the skin may turn a slight orange color).
It can be easy to believe that “more is better,” but it is not the case when dealing with dietary supplements. It is important to remember that a supplement is meant to be an addition or enhancement of the current diet—not the major source of a particular nutrient. Those that may benefit from supplementation are typically those that have a certain health condition (ex. untreated Celiac Disease), individuals in third world countries, those that remove particular foods rich in specific nutrients (ex. one that decides to become vegan), or those that are trying to achieve a particular goal (ex. whey based protein powder post-workout to aide in recovery).
Big picture: think food first. A well-developed meal plan will safely and efficiently give you the nutrients and energy you need. There is still so much we don’t know about particular whole foods. I receive weekly emails including studies regarding certain phytochemicals or antioxidants in cherries, beets, blueberries, kale, and the list goes on. The whole food triumphs any pill, extract or supplement attempting to mimic the food at hand. As you begin to focus on a high quality, whole foods diet I promise you will spend more time in the produce section and less time in the confusing supplement aisle. I would consider that a giant win for your health.