Why is a whole food diet better for my health than nutrient supplements?

Dominique Adair
The wonderful feature of healthy foods (that is not always duplicated in supplements) is that they often come in “combo platters.” Take the much lauded blueberry, now famous for the powerful antioxidants called anthocyanins (the pigment that makes blueberries dark blue is also a health promoting, disease fighting compound). But blueberries also contain a nice dose of fiber, which may lower your risk for GI cancers and heart disease. Blueberries also contain a compound called epicatechin which may help prevent urinary tract infections. Blueberries are also a good source of vitamin A, C, and folate (a B vitamin) as well as the mineral potassium -- all in one little berry! You might have to take quite a few different supplements to get all the benefits of this food, and many other whole foods. Plus, food provides energy and tastes good! While scientists are still exploring the health benefits of whole foods, studies of populations called “epidemiological studies”) show that people who eat lots of whole foods are healthier.

However, if you have discovered, with qualified counsel, that you are deficient in a particular nutrient(s), you should consider supplementing until you figure out how to incorporate foods rich in this nutrient into your diet.
Grant Cooper, MD
Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation
Whole foods contain hundreds of biologically active substances that work together to keep us healthy. Supplements may also be necessary, especially in the case of illness, but a healthy diet containing fruits and vegetables is critical. In addition, a vitamin obtained in pill form may not work the same in the human body, or it may not work at all, compared to the same vitamin found naturally in food.
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Alberta Scruggs
Nutrition & Dietetics
Eating "Whole Food" is superior to supplements because the nutrients from "Whole Foods" are better absorbed by the body.

Whole food provide more than one or two substances in one serving. The nutrients from Whole foods are similar to a buffet -- You go to a restaurant in search for a particular item, but wind up with an array of foods for the price of one.

Take Red cabbage for example. Not only is it a great vitamin C source, it also contains vitamin K, fiber, folate and the antioxidant, anthocyanin, which has anti-inflammatory properties. A supplement probably wouldn't have "All the Extras".
Jim White
Nutrition & Dietetics

Nutritional supplements are meant to be "supplements", not replacements for food or food groups. Supplements are not regulated, and many of the claims cannot be proven to support supplemental use. Through testing, supplements have been shown to be inconsistent in regard to how much of each ingredient is contained in the supplement. Getting one's nutrition is always best done through eating a balanced diet including all food groups. 

Susan Mitchell, PhD
Nutrition & Dietetics
A diet filled with whole foods is fabulous for the body because of the synergy that occurs with the naturally occurring vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients found in food. Think of synergy as players on a basketball team who play together to score points and win a game.

Naturally occurring nutrients in food work together (called the synergistic effect) in beneficial ways for the body whereas a nutrient supplement does not contain all of the known and unknown beneficial nutrients of whole food.
Judy Caplan
Nutrition & Dietetics
Whole foods are better than supplements because there are many compounds in foods like fiber, nutrients, phytochemicals, and enzymes which cannot be reproduced in a lab and some of which may not have even been discovered yet. While it may be necessary to take supplements if you are on medications, eat poorly, or have certain health issues, eating real, whole food should always be your first line of defense.
Cindy Guirino
Nutrition & Dietetics
Food from the source -- think apples not apple pie is always a better option because whole food is the whole package. When you eat an apple you are eating the insoluble fiber of the skin which aids in elimination plus you are eating the soluble fiber of the apple itself which is a great way of lowering your cholesterol as this soluble fiber carries cholesterol out of your bloodstream and it is excreted in your feces. Plus you are receiving all the vitamins and minerals of the fruit plus all the phytonutrients which provide you with optimal health and wellness.
Laura Motosko, MSEd, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics

A diet from whole foods contain thousands of beneficial nutrients not available in supplements alone. Supplements vary in quality and content which may cause unknown harmful side effects if consumed in excess.

Cassie Vanderwall
Nutrition & Dietetics
As a registered dietitian, I encourage food first! Vitamins and minerals are absorbed and used the best when they come from food. Supplements are meant to "supplement," or be "in addition to" a healthy diet. Supplements are helpful when a person cannot meet their energy, vitamin or mineral needs from food alone due to disease, surgery, or malnutrition.

Good sources of vitamins and minerals include:
  • Dark colored fruits and vegetables (spinach/greens, broccoli, tomatoes, eggplant, berries, citrus fruit, avocado)
  • Unsalted nuts and seeds (Almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds)
  • Seafood (seaweed, fish, shrimp, etc.)
Molly Morgan
Nutrition & Dietetics
No one knows for certain but it seems that there is something about the way the nutrients in the foods and the compounds within the foods that all work together to deliver nutrients to the body.

For example: rather than just taking vitamin C tablets: adding red pepper slices, oranges, broccoli, etc.... will deliver vitamin C to your body and perhaps in a way that is better utilized to help boost the immune system and the many other powerful benefits of vitamin C.
Vandana  R. Sheth
Nutrition & Dietetics
A whole food diet provides many positive benefits that cannot be replicated by individual nutrient supplements. For example, when you eat a whole orange, you are getting the fiber, satisfaction, fullness, flavor as well as Vitamin C, potassium, etc. However, if you have a vitamin C supplement, you might get the same if not more Vitamin C but, you will not get the rest of the benefits.
No one knows for sure, but it’s probably because the components of food are only one part of the complex balance of nutrients, chemicals and the interactions between them in the human body. Overwhelming part of that system with large doses of one component likely leads to actions and adjustments that are unintended and/or counterproductive within these systems.
Hiral Modi
Nutrition & Dietetics
Whole foods offer various benefits over supplements. They are packed with combinations of nutrients. For example, orange has not only vitamin C but also has some B carotene, B vitamins, calcium and iron while on other hand, vitamin C supplements lack this additional nutrients. Moreover, whole foods offers other benefits like fiber, phytochemicals and antioxidants which helps to protect against various chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart diseases and high blood pressure.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.