No Magic Supplements: Why Popping Pills Can't Replace a Good Diet

Supplements can be beneficial in certain cases, but they should not replace a healthy, balanced diet of whole foods.

We live in a culture of instant gratification. If you want to connect with friends, they're only a text away. If you want the latest news, it's only a click away. If you want something to eat, press a button or two, and food will show up at your door within 10 minutes. And if you want to eat healthy, just pop a handful of supplements, right?

Unfortunately, good nutrition isn't that easy. While certain supplements can have their place in a healthy lifestyle, they simply aren't a viable replacement for good nutrition. That means you can't just swallow a few pills in the morning and eat junk the rest of the day and expect to feel—and look—the way you want. STACK talked to Leslie Bonci, registered dietician and nutrition consultant to pro teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers, on why supplements can't replace a healthy whole food diet.

First, it's important to understand that supplements aren't designed to substitute for food, but to provide nutrients your body might be lacking. "The purpose of a supplement is to correct a deficiency, not to replace food," Bonci says. Essentially, supplements are designed to do what their name implies—supplement a good, healthy diet and give you any nutrients you might need more of for one reason or another. One of the biggest issues with using supplements to replace a healthy diet is the singularity of a supplement's benefits.

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Say you're taking a vitamin C supplement, for example. That would deliver one thing—vitamin C. Compare that to eating a food naturally high in vitamin C, such as broccoli. Broccoli will give your body plenty of vitamin C, but it also delivers other vitamins and minerals, phytonutrients, fiber, potassium, protein, calories and fluid. "Even though the body will use the vitamin C in broccoli like it will in a vitamin C supplement, it also gets a lot of other beneficial nutrients from the broccoli that are not in the supplement," Bonci says.

Those additional nutrients might also be working together to make each other more effective and efficient. According to Harvard Medical School, many of "the health effects of food likely derive from the synergistic interactions of nutrients and other compounds within and among the foods we eat." That means that many of the nutrients in whole foods interact in a meaningful, beneficial way, which supplements simply can't replicate. Numerous studies have been conducted on this topic, and it's a huge reason why a nutritious diet trumps relying on supplements. Essentially, natural combinations of nutrients available in whole foods work in concert to provide greater benefits than the isolated nutrients you find in a supplement.

For example, one study showed that consuming whole tomatoes as opposed to taking a lycopene supplement proved to be more effective in fighting cardiovascular disease. Think about it like this. Natural foods are hailed as much healthier than heavily processed foods, right? Well what's more processed, an organic orange or a concentrated supplement created in a laboratory? Exactly.

You might be saying, "well what about multivitamins? Don't they have enough going on to provide some nutrient synergy?" Well, the effectiveness of multivitamins has been under heavy fire of late, and a 2008 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that multivitamins had zero effect in 10 different health-related categories, including heart attack and cancer.

And overdoing certain nutrients, which is shockingly easy when a single pill contains an extremely high amount, can be harmful. For example, taking too much vitamin C can cause diarrhea, and too much vitamin A can cause serious health issues such as blood clotting and compromised bone health. Supplements aren't regulated like food and drugs, leaving them in a gray area, in which they  are allowed to not live up to their claims or even be dangerous. "Supplements aren't as well regulated as foods and drugs, so depending on the product, you might be getting more—or less—than you bargained for," Bonci says.

Cost is another strike against supplements, since they can be very expensive. And if you're taking more than you need, your body will likely expel the excess. "If you pay a lot of money for a supplement and take in excess of what you need, you end up with very expensive urine," Bonci says.

In the end, popping pills is simply no match for a nutritious, varied diet filled with plenty of whole foods. Think of supplements more like insurance policies rather than your primary source of important vitamins and nutrients. They're there as a back-up,  and generally shouldn't be used as your only source of any one nutrient.  So the next time you want to reach for a supplement, head to the pantry instead.

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