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This Is Why You Should Get Nutrients From Food, Not Supplements

Experts weigh-in and explain why you should always try to get the majority of nutrients from food.

There are many factors that go into leading a healthy lifestyle. Two pivotal aspects include eating a healthful diet and exercising. Not only can eating a diet rich in foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and lean proteins help to sustain energy levels, but it can also help ward off illness. In some cases, nutrient deficiencies can make a person more susceptible to certain ailments. For example, vitamin D has been shown to prevent, or lower the risk of, contracting respiratory infections, including the common cold. Those who have low vitamin D levels may be prone to getting respiratory infections more often, too. So, it would make sense to reach for supplements to get some help, right?

See, sufficient intake of essential vitamins and minerals can typically be achieved through consuming a balanced diet. Often though, many people turn to supplements and vitamins for an added boost, as they provide additional nutrient support—but not all of it. In fact, taking too many supplements can be dangerous to your health. We consulted Kelli McGrane MS, RD for the food-tracking app Lose It!, as well as Tamara Bernadot, co-founder and chief nutrition officer at customized vitamin and supplement service Persona Nutrition, for more insight on the great supplements vs. food debate.

As an RD, why do you think it's better to get nutrients from food rather than in the form of supplements?

We know there are several vitamins out there that are marketed to consumers as containing equivalent nutrition as x-amount servings of vegetables and fruits, but we're not convinced that's the best way to receive vital nutrients.

"Compared to supplements, whole foods like fruits and vegetables are almost always a healthier option," says McGrane. "In addition to containing more overall nutrients, including macronutrients and micronutrients, whole foods also contain beneficial fiber and protective compounds, such as antioxidants, that aren't always present in supplements."

Why should someone take a multivitamin? What's the best way to find out if taking a multivitamin is necessary?

"While I'm an advocate for getting most of your nutrition through whole foods, there are times when supplements are necessary to ensure an individual is meeting his or her needs," says McGrane.

The registered dietitian says that multivitamins may be helpful for those who may have a restricted diet, struggle to eat a diversity of foods, or have a condition that makes it difficult to absorb nutrients from foods.

"While blood work can signal a nutrient deficiency, if an individual feels that his or her diet is restrictive or has noticed physical signs of deficiency, it's important to make an appointment with a registered dietitian or primary care physician prior to starting a multivitamin," she explains.

Why is it so important to not ingest an excessive amount of certain vitamins and minerals?

There are two main types of vitamins: those that are water-soluble, which are dissolved in the presence of water, and those that are fat-soluble, which can dissolve in fats and oils. Water-soluble vitamins are not stored in the body, making it even more important to hit daily requirements of these every day. In fact, the body excretes most water-soluble vitamins—which include vitamins B and C complex—through urine. In contrast, fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E, and K, are stored in the liver and adipose (fat) tissue and if consumed in excess, can reach toxic levels.

"Vitamin A, in particular, is concerning, as excess amounts can lead to dizziness, vomiting, fatigue, liver damage, bone loss, and hair loss," says McGrane. "At extreme doses, [it] can even be fatal. It's recommended that adults not exceed the upper limit of 10,00 IU (900 mcg) per day."

Iron is an essential mineral that could be dangerous if consumed in excess amounts. "Acute symptoms of iron poisoning include stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting. However, if iron intake continues to be excessive, iron can accumulate in internal organs and ultimately lead to fatal brain and liver damage," she says.

Taking too many vitamins and supplements can put you at risk of toxicity, so be sure to consult with your doctor or registered dietitian beforehand.

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How common are nutrient deficiencies?

"While many populations globally experience nutrient deficiencies that cause very serious health conditions (like rickets from a lack of vitamin D in the diet), the real concern in the U.S. is marginal deficiencies," says Bernadot. "Analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey finds that nearly one-third of U.S. adults may be at risk of deficiency for at least one vitamin."

We need more or less of certain nutrients during different stages of life. For example, children between the ages of 9 and 18 need 1,300 milligrams of calcium per day to support bone growth. Men between the ages of 19 and 70 and women between 19 and 50 only require 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day. Pregnancy and lactation also require increased intake of specific vitamins and minerals.

"For instance, women who are pregnant need optimal levels of vitamin B9 (folic acid) to help support the growth and development of the baby and minimize the risk of neural tube defects," says Bernadot.

How do you determine which supplements to take, if any at all?

"The best way is to meet with a registered dietitian who can properly examine your diet for possible nutrient gaps, as well as perform a nutrition-focused physical assessment to look for possible signs of deficiencies," says McGrane. "Not only are dietitians trained in identifying deficiencies, but they'll also be able to give you personalized recommendations on which supplements to take, the proper dose, and trustworthy brands."

Is there anything to be cautious about when taking supplements?

"If your doctor or dietitian recommends taking supplements, it's important to remember that nutritional supplements aren't regulated by the FDA. As a result, it's essential to do your homework before purchasing," McGrane advises. "Look for brands with USP on the label, as it indicates that it's been tested for quality and is produced according to the FDA's Good Manufacturing Practices."

Cheyenne Buckingham
Cheyenne Buckingham is the former news editor of Eat This, Not That! Read more about Cheyenne
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