Healthy Foods vs. Dietary Supplements: What Does My Body Need?

Eating a well-balanced diet containing a variety of nutritious foods is a common goal for many Americans. There is more than a grain of truth in the old saying “you are what you eat.”

Most of us acknowledge a healthy diet comprised of lots of fruits and vegetables, modest portions of whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and lean sources of protein is ideal. However, many people aren’t able—or aren’t willing—to put that much effort into what they eat.

As a result, many Americans rely on vitamin supplements to compensate for what they are lacking.

Do We Need Supplements?

By eating the right amounts of the right foods, you will get all of the nutrients you need to stay healthy.

To figure out if you are on track, you can schedule an appointment with a nutritionist or use one of the many diet-tracking websites available online. Do an honest appraisal of your eating habits to make sure you are getting what you need without relying on supplements.

Supplements are not bad per se, but they are meant to be just that–supplements to an already well-balanced diet.

Getting your nutrients from foods has additional benefits over taking a supplement. Some benefits include increased fiber intake, a feeling of satiety, and consumption of antioxidants, which are well-known for promoting health and combating the aging process.

Most Common Vitamin Supplements

Though it is better to get essential vitamins and nutrients by eating a balanced diet, there are certain nutrients that health-conscious people tend to take in supplement form.

The top five vitamins people are likely to take as a supplement are:

  1. Vitamin B12: Also known as cobalamin, this vitamin is part of a larger group of B vitamins. Vitamin B12 is found in most animal products and is essential for the health of the nervous system and blood cell creation. B12 is commonly taken to improve concentration, boost memory, and increase energy levels.
  2. Calcium: More commonly taken among women than men, everyone needs adequate amounts of calcium for a healthy skeletal system. Though most people start taking calcium supplements later in life, it is important that young people get enough calcium; before age thirty is when the body derives the most benefit.
  3. Vitamin D: Though vitamin D is naturally made by the body when exposed to sunlight, it is commonly paired in a supplement along with calcium. Vitamin D is necessary for the body to absorb calcium and other vital nutrients.
  4. Omega-3 fatty acid: Often sold as a fish oil supplement, omega-3 fatty acid is one of the most common supplements on the market. Parents of yore often gave children fish liver oil, which is extremely high in omega-3 fatty acid, for higher immunity. Recent studies have found that getting enough of this nutrient is necessary for cardiovascular health as well.
  5. Zinc: Lastly, zinc is also often taken to boost immunity. It is best to get zinc from the diet; though when people fall ill, it is common to take zinc-fortified lozenges to speed up the pace of recovery. It is important to be cautious if you do take zinc supplements as overdosing is toxic.

Exception to the Rule

Even though a healthy diet is the foundation of optimal nutrition, supplements do fulfill a vital role in establishing a healthy lifestyle. In fact, there are certain cases where vitamin supplements are essential. People who should seriously consider beginning a supplement regimen include:

  • Vegetarians and vegans. These people tend to be health-conscious anyway, though their restricted diet means that they may be missing out on some important nutrients like calcium, vitamin B12, and iron.
  • Pregnant or nursing women. Women in this condition have additional nutritional needs, particularly for vitamins such as iron, folic acid, and calcium. Women must ensure these needs are met for the sake of their baby's health.
  • Meal-skippers. As long as you get the nutrients you need at some point during the day you will be fine, but people who skip meals tend to neglect attention to nutritional details. The amount of nutrients you need varies by gender, age, and activity level, so take these factors into consideration when deciding what, if any, supplements to take.
  • Low-calorie dieters. People who severely restrict their calorie intake run a high risk of experiencing nutritional deficiency. Dieters must ensure that the foods they do eat are nutrient-dense. Supplements may be a good idea to prevent deficiency.
  • Individuals who are lactose intolerant. People with this condition have a hard time getting sufficient amounts of calcium, which is found most often in dairy products. As a result, people, (especially women) with lactose intolerance may want to consider a supplement.
  • Individuals with autoimmune diseases. A vitamin deficiency almost always accompanies other major health issues. For example, patients with pernicious anemia, Crohn’s disease, Graves’ disease and lupus usually need vitamin B12 injections. Vitamin D deficiencies have been linked to diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

What You Should Know If You Take Supplements

First and foremost, not all supplements are created equally. There is no “miracle pill” that can cure and/or prevent all ailments. Supplements are meant to improve upon an already healthy diet, nothing more.

Almost all manufacturers have a disclaimer in their labels saying that the supplement is not guaranteed to cure anything. However, manufacturers may indicate the potential benefits of the nutrients in the supplement, which can be confusing for consumers.

So if you choose to add supplements to your diet, know what you are buying and if it should be taken with food or on an empty stomach. Do not overdose, as certain vitamins (such as vitamins A, B6, and D) can be toxic in high levels.

Tell your doctor what supplements you are taking as certain types can interfere with medication.

And most importantly, don't forget that supplements are part of, not a replacement for, a healthy and well-balanced diet.

Barbara Komorek

Barbara is the founder and owner of www.leanhealthyandwise.com. She is a former research scientist with a serious passion for health. She enjoys writing about nutrition, wellness and lifestyle and empowering people to take control of their health.