Vitamins vs. Veggies

Customer in pharmacy holding medicine bottle. Woman reading the label text about medical information or side effects in drug store. Patient shopping pills for migraine or flu. Vitamin or zinc tablets.

When I was a kid, I loved the Flintstone vitamin that was set next to my breakfast each morning. I mean, what kid wouldn’t enjoy a candy like pill with their breakfast? As a teenager, I took an iron supplement because of a doctor’s recommendation.  As a college student, I took fish oil capsules because I thought I should supplement my then vegetarian diet.    I’ve since outgrown all of those things, and now rely on a healthy, plant heavy diet to meet my needs.   Is this the right choice?

As we walk through the grocery store today, we are inundated with thousands of products that claim to benefit our health.    There are so many supplements, and enhanced waters, and protein powders.   There are vitamin capsules, vitamin creams, and those ridiculous vitamin gummies.  In fact, do you know that grocery stores offer on average 47,000 different choices of products?

Are these supplements something we actually need?

The answer?  Save yourself the cash, and the space in your pantry, because any and everything we get in a vitamin supplement, we can get (even better) from a natural food source.   The Mayo Clinic and Harvard Health agree. If you are looking to enrich your diet with vitamins, look to your table. Whole, unprocessed foods are the heroes of the vitamin world because they have all of the right stuff.

A vitamin pill is actually a pharmaceutically engineered nutrient that attempts to isolate a single vitamin.  Really, it is a processed food.    A piece of fruit, or a crisp veggie is loaded with vitamins that enter the body with a host of help. Whole foods are also the best source of fiber, and are full of micronutrients and phytochemicals. All of these natural elements help the body and boost immune system.  Vitamin rich foods also contain antioxidants that protect our cells from environmental damage. This halo of important factors really lets the vitamins do their ‘thang.

Supplements lose the vitamin battle for a few reasons:

Supplements are not regulated or tested. So, we have no idea what is in them! Unlike pharmaceuticals, they are not tested by the FDA. Many supplements are marketed and sold without any proof that they are beneficial, contain the ingredients they claim to, or even that they are safe.

Supplements isolate the vitamin. Without the helpful halo of naturally occurring chemicals that you get with food based vitamins, supplemental vitamins are harder to absorb. A supplemental vitamin has been refined, and robbed of all its accessory nutrients. So, this lone vitamin is not properly absorbed and it cannot do its best job.

Supplements can have very high doses of vitamins. For example, it is common for a vitamin c supplement to contain 1,000 milligrams of vitamin c. The recommended daily dose of vitamin c is only 90 milligrams for an adult man and 75 milligrams for an adult woman. In just one week of taking these potent pills, you will have consumed between 80 and 90 times the recommended amount of vitamin c. Vitamin overdoses can be painful with symptoms ranging from vomiting to nerve damage, depending on the type and content of vitamin.

Americans spent over 14 billion dollars on vitamin supplements in 2014. This money would pack more health-bang for the buck if it were spent bettering our diets. We could all benefit from eating more of these vitamin rich foods. They are edible bundles of health, and who doesn’t need that? Food is not only a better source of vitamins, but a better source of nutrients overall. A crisp, juicy apple will beat a gummy vitamin any day.

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