Wholefoods or Supplements?

A Dietitian explains which is best!

Written by Accredited Nutritionist and Accredited Practising Dietitian Millie Padula, founder of Dietitian Edition.

The debate on whether wholefoods are superior or not to supplements is a topic that has been floating within the health industry for quite some time. Wholefoods are foods in their most natural form, free from processing, refining, additives and preservatives. Supplements on the other hand are products that generally contain synthetic vitamins and minerals and are used in ‘addition’ to ones diet.  

You turn on the TV and are instantly persuaded to purchase a protein shake, or maybe social media is where you catch up on the latest news, soon to be stopped by an advertisement for a greens powder. Magazines for you? Flick to page 3 and you are convinced you need to start incorporating fish oil capsules into your regime. Sound familiar?

We have all been there, and most of us are probably guilty of buying into these marketing schemes that have made us spend a few too many pennies on pills, shakes and powders with the intention of ‘transforming our health’. 

This is nothing to be ashamed of; pharmaceutical companies employ extremely clever advertising tactics to make us believe that we need more than just food to be the healthiest versions of ourselves. In some circumstances, we absolutely occasionally do (we will get into that later in the article) however for most of us, the nutrients we receive from a well balanced diet are more than adequate to provide our bodies with all that it needs. This is why Dietitians and all the team at KOJA always advocate for a Food First approach.  

What we know about vitamins and minerals is that they are absolutely necessary to keep our immune systems thriving, to help reduce our risk of illness and disease, keep our energy levels sustained and the structural components of our bodies (our muscles & bones) as strong as can be.

You might be surprised to know that most nutrients do not work in isolation. What we mean by this is that they generally rely on other nutrients to perform to the best of their abilities. As an example, calcium requires vitamin D to be absorbed most efficiently into the blood and vitamin C needs assistance from Iron to work its best. This can not be achieved via supplements alone. 

When we eat a strawberry, we aren’t just getting Vitamin C, we are receiving so many other amazing nutrients as well. Following on from that, one of the compounds found in food that you will always hear nutrition professionals harp on about is fibre. Fibre is found in plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts & seeds and is vital for our digestive health. Not consuming enough fibre can lead to an array of health problems related to poor gut health. A diet rich in plant foods with no added supplements is much more superior than a poor quality diet high in processed products with an extra supplement or ten! Supplements cannot mask poor food choices. 

You might be thinking, “I eat a healthy diet but I incorporate a few supplements or multivitamins to top-up my nutrient levels?”.

Whilst these practises are set with the best intentions, too much of a certain vitamin or mineral can actually be harmful for your health. Take Vitamin A as an example, found predominantly in liver-based products. Consuming too much Vitamin A can build up in your liver and cause blurred vision, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and confusion - not pleasant. 

The same goes for protein; consuming too much can actually place strain on your kidneys.

So remember, more doesn’t always mean best. Our bodies are really clever in the way that if we have too much of a nutrient present in our blood, it will excrete it through our urine. If you’ve noticed that your urine is really yellow after taking a multivitamin, this is actually the concentration of all those extra vitamins and minerals leaving your body. That makes for some really expensive wee! 

Now that we know a balanced diet rich in wholefoods is our priority for optimal health and wellbeing, and are the host of so many nutrients that work simultaneously in concentrations that our bodies require, supplements may still be necessary in certain situations. These include:

  • Individuals diagnosed with a nutritional deficiency who are unable to get enough of that nutrient through food alone
  • Women who are pregnant or trying to conceive 
  • Older adults 
  • Those following a vegan lifestyle 
  • Professional athletes
  • Individuals with conditions where nutrient absorption is reduced. 

Choose wholefoods where you can, focus on increasing your fruit and vegetable intake and if you suspect a nutritional deficiency or a condition where a supplement may be necessary, always consult with your Doctor and a Dietitian.