With the explosion of new supplement companies over the past five years, it may be difficult to understand when you should get your nutrients through food or when you should supplement. Both food and supplements have their purpose for any goal, but understanding the slight nuances of each will help you make a more informed decision. These details will make sure you are not wasting your money on unnecessary supplementation.
If you ask a dietitian they will always tell you that food is king and most may say that supplements are a waste of money. They say this for good reason. Food is packed full of highly bioavailable vitamins and minerals that supplements cannot offer. For example, folic acid and folate, which are both B-vitamins. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate. Folic acid is added to foods that have been stripped of their nutrients during processing along with other nutrients such as calcium, vitamin C, iron, and fiber. Look on the back of any cereal label and you will see the nutrients added back to the cereal in the ingredients section. Folic acid is not as bioavailable (absorbed in your body) as folate. Therefore, most, especially pregnant women, will supplement with folic acid because they cannot get enough folate in their diet. Folate is the more superior form of folic acid (2). Folate can be found in:
- Beef Liver
- Black-eyed Peas
- Brussels Sprouts
The same thing can be said for nutrients such as iron. Iron is an extremely important nutrient required for oxygen transportation, hormones, and development in children (NIH). There are two types of iron including heme and nonheme. Heme iron can be found in animal sources of protein such as chicken, beef, and liver. Nonheme iron is found in plant and fortified foods such green, leafy vegetables and, the example from above, cereal. Heme iron is much more bioavailable than nonheme iron, but both should be consumed with foods containing vitamin C such as oranges, strawberries, and raspberries (1).
Aside from individual nutrients, eating whole foods also has many other health benefits than taking supplements. When you consume a supplement, you are taking one specific nutrient for whatever that purpose may be. Although, when you consume foods, especially unprocessed foods, you are taking in a variety of different vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. These molecules can have positive impacts on your health by reducing inflammation and making sure you are healthy. Additionally, it's easy to over-consume supplements, which could lead to toxicity. When you eat food for your nutrition, it's much more difficult to reach toxic levels of nutrients.
There is a time and place to take supplements. When your nutrition is lacking and you are deficient in certain nutrients, taking individual vitamins and minerals can benefit your health. Additionally, supplements can help support your goals. Common uses of supplements include athletic performance, cognition and longevity.
People have been taking supplements to improve their athletic performance for a long time. You may have heard of people taking supplements such as creatine and whey protein to increase strength and size. The growth of the sports performance supplement industry is staggering and many companies are making supplements that don't work. Yet, there are supplements that do work for increasing athletic performance including:
- Whey Protein
- BCAAs (Branched Chain Amino Acids)
These supplements will help with recovery, strength, and muscle growth. Although, if your goal is to improve your cognition as well as athletic performance, there is a newer category of supplements entering the industry. These are called nootropics.
The interesting thing about cognitive supplements, or nootropics, is their variety of different uses. Cognition affects everyone including athletes, business people, students, and the elderly. All people want to have a cognitive edge. Therefore, these supplements will make you more alert, focused, energetic as well as improve your ability to learn and recall information. Who wouldn't want that? These ingredients are found in food, but the dose in not high enough to have a positive impact on your cognition, which is why you need to supplement them. Common nootropic supplements include:
- Theacrine (TeaCrine)
Interestingly, nootropic supplements cross-over into supplements that improve your long-term health; what we call longevity. When we talk about longevity, we are discussing the whole body. This includes brain health, muscular health, and cellular function. Some may have a direct impact on your cognition, but most ensure your body stays healthy over time. These supplements can repair damaged cells and spark the growth of new cells throughout the body. Common supplements to improve longevity include:
- Coffee Fruit Extract (NeuroFactor)
- Lion's Mane
- Ketones (BHB)
- Medium Chain Trigylcerides (MCTs)
As you can see there are difference between food and supplements. Food is better for your health to ensure you are getting enough vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Conversely, supplements are better for a specific goal because food may not contain enough of a specific nutrient to have an impact on the goal. The balance between foods and supplements is crucial because you cannot take supplements to replace food, but enhance what you are already doing.
- Björn-Rasmussen, E., Hallberg, L., Isaksson, B., & Arvidsson, B. (1974). Food Iron Absorption in Man Applications of the Two-Pool Extrinsic Tag Method to Measure Heme and Nonheme Iron Absorption from the Whole Diet. The Journal of clinical investigation, 53(1), 247-255.
- National Institute of Health. (2018). Health Information: Folic Acid Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. Retrieved from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Folate-HealthProfessional/