Supplements vs. Healthy Diets: Which Is Better for You?

Eating a variety of foods is an important way to stay healthy. Food contains nutrients like protein, carbohydrates, fats, fiber, and water, as well as many different vitamins and minerals, and other compounds that can keep you healthy. Your body uses all of these to keep your muscles, bones, organs, and other tissues healthy and strong. Eating a mix of nutritious foods can also reduce your risk for many diseases and conditions, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

Dietary supplements are an easy way to add nutrients to your diet. The most common are pills, powders, or beverages. They usually provide vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, or other nutrients. Some, such as multivitamins or complete nutrition shakes, may provide a combination.

Benefits of a Healthy Diet

Experts recommend that healthy people get their vitamins and minerals by eating nutrient-dense foods rather than taking supplements. Most studies don’t show a clear link between taking supplements and preventing disease—unless those diseases are caused by a nutritional deficiency—so if you’re in good health, you’re better off getting nutrients from food. The vitamins and minerals in foods are often easier for the body to absorb.

Benefits of Supplements

But busy caregivers may not have the time or resources to purchase and prepare healthy meals, or may be caring for someone with little or no appetite. Supplements or fortified foods can help provide nutrients that you or your loved one might be missing, especially if you have:

  • Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, or irritable bowel syndrome
  • Osteoporosis
  • Age-related macular degeneration

If you answer “yes” to these questions, you might benefit from supplements or fortified foods:

  • Do you eat fewer than 2 meals a day?
  • Is your diet restricted? (For example, do you not eat meat or dairy, or do you eat fewer than 5 servings of fruit and vegetables every day?)
  • Do you eat most of your meals alone?
  • Have you gained or lost more than 10 pounds in the last six months without trying to?
  • Do you take 3 or more medications a day?
  • Do you have 3 or more alcoholic drinks a day?
  • Are you pregnant?
  • Are you in menopause or post-menopausal?

Risks of Supplements

Never start taking a supplement without talking to your doctor first!

  •  Some vitamins and minerals may be harmful in large amounts.
  • Supplements are not tested or regulated by the FDA.
  • Some supplements can interact with medications, and it’s especially important for anyone with a condition like diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease to get a doctor’s OK before taking a supplement.

Your doctor can tell you which nutrients you may need to supplement, and can tell you the appropriate dosage and form or source you should take. Calcium, for example, comes in many forms from different sources. Depending on your needs, your doctor may recommend that you take a specific type, or that you take it combination with magnesium or vitamin D.

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