Supplements vs. Real Food
What are Supplements?
Have you ever wandered into the supplement section in a store and been overwhelmed by the vast selection on the shelves? Dietary supplements are defined as ingested substances intended to increase nutritional value in one’s diet to meet the daily requirements (1). In other words, supplements help prevent potential negative effects caused by deficiency in certain nutrients. Does this mean we should all be taking supplements by the handful?
Which populations are more susceptible to deficiency?
We tend to see supplements as a solution to our poor diet or stress. Research shows that supplements can be helpful but only if we also contribute to our health by exercising, sleeping, and eating healthy (2). The best way to eat healthy is to consume a wide variety of foods in adequate amounts, but this is easier said than done. We all live a lifestyle determined by our personal preferences and cultural background and it affects the way we eat along with what we eat. As you can imagine, those who have restricted diets such as vegetarians will be more prone to certain nutrient deficiencies since meat is an important source of important nutrients such as vitamin B12 (3). Because of this, it can be quite challenging for vegetarians to get sufficient amounts. This is where supplements come in as they can be a great way to help maintain health for these populations!
Pregnant women are also prone to nutrient deficiencies. Not only do they provide nutrients for themselves, but also enough nutrients to support the growth of their baby. The daily recommended intake is often higher for pregnant women.
Lastly, the elderly are also recommended to watch their nutrient intake.
When we age, our absorption of nutrients decreases so we must consume more to make up for the loss. Sometimes it can be difficult to eat enough of each nutrient, so in such cases, supplements may come in handy.
Supplements vs. the amount of food
A deficiency in B12 is uncommon amongst meat consumers as we often surpass the daily recommended intake (DRI) of 2.4 micrograms (4). This amount translates to about 3 ounces of beef, which is about the size of your palm, or 3 glasses of milk (5).
Some of the amazing health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids is highlighted in one of the previous blog entries, “Foods For Your Memory’s Sake”. Omega-3 is known to improve heart health and brain function. Eating salmon can get you similar benefits as if you take an omega 3 supplement (6). For those who do not eat fish, an alternative source is chia seeds. One tablespoon of chia seeds is enough to reach the recommended amount per day (6). Chia seeds are versatile and can be easily incorporated into breakfasts like oatmeal, yoghurt, and smoothies. Now before you decide to buy a bottle of fish oil supplements, you can also consider implementing these foods into your diet for the same health benefits! It may not be as hard as you think to get enough omega-3 from eating real foods.
To better visualize calcium content in everyday foods, 3-4 cups of milk per day are required to maintain
healthy bones (7). Of course, we do not have to solely depend on milk for calcium as other foods like leafy green vegetables and tofu are contributors to our calcium intake as well (8). For tofu, make sure you look at the ingredient list to make sure it is made with calcium sulfate. Eating one cup of tofu is about the same as drinking 3-4 cups of milk in terms of its calcium content (9). Just like omega-3, calcium has an abundant food source and can be easily added to your diet.
My Food Journal Experience
As an introductory course to nutrition at UBC, a 3 day dietary assessment is usually assigned. I was curious to see which nutrients I was not consuming enough of and it turns out I did not meet the requirements for vitamin B12, omega 3, or calcium. As a person who doesn’t have any restrictions in their diet, I was surprised to see these results. However, instead of turning to supplements I decided to incorporate some small changes in my diet to help me meet the requirements. Drinking a glass of milk each day will help me reach my vitamin B12 and calcium goals as well as adding a teaspoon of chia seeds in my oatmeal will increase my omega 3 intake.
So are supplements needed?
From my food journal experience, I realized a lot of nutrients go hand in hand when we consume them from real foods! A lot of the time a small changes and additions to our diet can solve the problem when we are not consuming enough of eat nutrient.
Hopefully, I shined some light on what supplements are and how they compare to real food. Supplements can provide us with health benefits and can be helpful for populations that are susceptible to deficiency. However, it may not be a good idea to rely solely on supplements to combat poor lifestyle choices! Going back to the basics and eating healthy whole foods is always the best thing you can do for yourself!
By: Alison Chan
Edited by: Iris Lopez Ramirez
Final Edits by: Renée Chan, MS, MBA, RD, RDN, CDN
- Dietary supplement health and education act of 1994
- Bergstrom, L. (2009). The Use of Multiple Dietary Supplements. Journal of dietary supplements, 6(1), 1-8.
- Leischker, A. H., & Kolb, G. F. (2015). Vitamin B12 deficiency in the elderly. Zeitschrift für Gerontologie Und Geriatrie, 48(1), 73.
- Institute of Medicine (US) Standing Committee on the Scientific Evaluation of Dietary Reference Intakes. (1998). Institute of Medicine (US) Panel on Folate Other B Vitamins and Choline; Institute of Medicine (US) Subcommittee on Upper Reference Levels of Nutrients. Dietary Reference Intakes for Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Vitamin B12, Pantothenic Acid, Biotin, and Choline.
- Gille, D., & Schmid, A. (2015). Vitamin B12 in meat and dairy products. Nutrition Reviews, 73(2), 106-115.
- Simopoulos, A. P. (2002). Omega‐3 fatty acids in wild plants, nuts and seeds. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 11(s6).
- Rogers, T. S., Garrod, M. G., Peerson, J. M., Hillegonds, D. J., Buchholz, B. A., Demmer, E., … & Van Loan, M. D. (2016). Is bone equally responsive to calcium and vitamin D intake from food vs. supplements? Use of 41 calcium tracer kinetic model. Bone reports, 5, 117-123.
- Nguyen, V. H. (2012). Osteoporosis prevention and motivation for weight-bearing physical activity and calcium consumption. Perspectives in public health, 132(6), 276.
- Zidenberg-Cherr, S. (2016). Nutrition and Health Info Sheet: Calcium.
About the author:
Alison Chan is a fourth year student studying Food and Nutritional Sciences. She loves expressing her creativity in various forms such as crafts, fine arts and food.