Food vs. Vitamins: Your Top Questions Answered!

Food vs. Vitamins: Your Top Questions Answered!

Today we will explore common questions I receive on the need for taking vitamin/mineral supplements versus getting your vitamins through your diet.

Question 1: Are supplements as effective as foods when it comes to getting adequate nutrition?

The benefit of receiving adequate nutrition from wholesome foods is that you also receive an abundance of other important nutrients that supplements alone do not provide.  When consuming foods we receive not only one vitamin/mineral but a synergistic effect of the vitamins and minerals in the food working together.  For example, one cup of strawberries provides 150% of your daily vitamin C but this fruit also packs heart healthy potassium and fibre as well.  Or a cup of milk not only provides 30% of our daily calcium but also magnesium, phosphorous and vitamin D which are very important for bone health.  This is why I encourage my clients to enjoy a variety of “nutrient-rich foods” every day such as a variety of colourful vegetables and fruit, whole grains, dairy products, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds.   However, there are considerations where clients are unable to meet their nutritional needs through their diets alone and supplements are then required to help fill in the gaps.


Question 2: In general, do Canadians get the necessary nutrients from their diets?

According to Health Canada, many Canadians get too little calcium, magnesium, potassium, vitamin A, vitamin D, and fibre.  Interestingly, multivitamins are not a good source of calcium, magnesium, potassium or fibre.  Therefore, instead of reaching for a multivitamin, Canadians should focus on consuming “nutrient-rich” foods to boost their nutrient intakes where they may be falling short.


Canadians should focus on consuming “nutrient-rich” foods to boost intakes vs. multivitamins. Click To Tweet


Vegans and vegetarians are at risk for vitamin B12 and iron deficiency because plant foods do not contain B12 and the iron in plant food is not as readily absorbed.  Older adults are also at risk of B12 deficiency because absorption decreases with age.  Health Canada recommends that Canadians over 50 consume foods fortified with vitamin B12 or take a supplement.

If you are concerned about meeting your nutrient needs, it is best to speak with a registered dietitian who can complete a comprehensive dietary review and determine if you require a vitamin or mineral supplement.

Question 3: Please comment of need for multivitamins

The largest and longest randomized controlled trial of multivitamins, the U.S. Physician’s Health Study II, found no evidence that taking a multivitamin did not prevent heart attacks or strokes any more than a placebo.  Multivitamins are not harmful; however, they may provide false “dietary insurance”.  Therefore, it is important to understand how much you need to be consuming in your diet and how much you are receiving in your multivitamin to know if it is truly meeting your needs.


Multivitamins are not harmful; however, they may provide false “dietary insurance”. Click To Tweet

Question 4: Should children take vitamins if they are picky eaters?

It often takes children trying a new food several times before they develop a liking; so parents should continue to persevere and encourage healthy diets in a supportive, positive environment first!  A multivitamin will not make up for all of the vitamins and minerals in a balanced diet; however, specific vitamins or minerals of concern, such as iron or vitamin D, may need to be supplemented separately to meet your child’s needs.  It is best to speak with your pediatrician or registered dietitian when considering a supplement.


Bottom Line:

I am a “food first” dietitian, partly because I love food and partly because wholesome foods contain so many vitamins and minerals to form a beautifully balanced diet.  Ensure your diet is nutritionally balanced to meet your body’s needs for healthy functioning and disease prevention.  Keep in mind that certain population groups like infants/children, adolescent females, elders, vegetarians/vegans, athletes, pregnant or breastfeeding are at higher risk for inadequate intakes and are more likely to require specific supplements on top of a healthy diet to meet their nutritional needs.