The USDA has declared June to be National Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Month, and that’s definitely something to celebrate! The importance of including a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet is undeniable and backed by mounds of rigorous research. In fact, a healthy, well-planned diet supplies all or most of the nutrients the body needs to function at its best.
Even so, roughly 25% of Americans rely on dietary supplements for their nutritional needs rather than making healthier food choices (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2006). It may seem like a logical shortcut, but getting your vitamins and nutrients from a bottle is simply not as effective as eating good food, and in some cases it may actually be dangerous.
Let’s look at a common example. Many people believe that taking high doses of vitamin C at the onset of a cold will boost the immune system and help them get better faster. It’s true that vitamin C can strengthen your body’s immune response—over time, as a part of your regular daily diet—but the only effects you will get from taking 4 or 5 vitamin C tablets all at once are diarrhea and an upset stomach.
And even if you don’t eat enough fruits and veggies, many foods that you probably do eat—like bread, cereal, and dairy products—have already been fortified with certain nutrients, so taking in even more of these nutrients in the form of supplements can create a harmful imbalance in the body. For example, too much vitamin A triggers headaches and skin rashes, while too much folic acid can cause abdominal cramping, confusion, and even seizures.
Further complicating the issue of safety is the fact that dietary supplements are largely unregulated before and even after they appear on store shelves. Neither the USDA nor the FDA has any oversight on the makeup and manufacture of these products, which means it’s up to consumers to research the legitimacy of supplement companies.
But what about all the marvelous health benefits of individual nutrients you hear touted far and wide? If you follow the claims to their source, you’ll find that much of the research backing them up has involved measuring the benefits of nutrient-rich food sources, not supplements in the form of pills and tablets. As a matter of fact, in many cases the positive results could not be duplicated when supplements alone were tested.
The key to obtaining maximum benefits from nutrients is to take advantage of their synergy–the way they work together to keep your body going. Vitamin D on its own isn’t any good without magnesium, which helps the body convert the vitamin into its active form. And without vitamin D, the body can’t properly absorb calcium. Your body needs all of these nutrients to benefit from any of them.
So you could get your vitamin D, magnesium, and calcium from a handful of pills—or you could have a delicious green, leafy salad as a side dish at dinner and wash it down with a glass of milk. Considering the size and the average cost of most supplements, which option do you think is easier to swallow?