Are supplements better than food?

The nutritional supplement market is set to grow from around £102bn in 2023 to £241bn by 2030. Yet people’s nutrient intake from food can so often be poor, due to overconsumption of ultra processed foods, lack of dietary variety, dietary restrictions and a general lack of vegetables, whole grains and other nutrient-dense whole foods. Is it best to take supplements as a safeguard alongside a poor diet or is it best to spend the supplement money on more nutritious food? And are there situations where supplement use is necessary, even while consuming a healthy diet?

Approx read time: 6 mins
Are supplements better than food?

Should anyone take supplements?

There is some merit to supplement use in particular cases, such as folic acid in early pregnancy or daily vitamin D during the winter months in the UK, or targeted supplements when a deficiency has been medically diagnosed, such as vitamin B12 deficiency due to pernicious anaemia.

Other scenarios could be when someone is following a restrictive diet that cuts out food groups or whole rafts of ingredients, or if someone can’t tolerate much food for whatever reason, or if someone has such a level of deficiency that they need a more concentrated approach alongside real food. Plus other similar scenarios that restrict the consumption of whole food or where there is a medical or extreme deficiency issue. But blindly supplementing may do more harm than good and the money could be better spent on improving the diet, whenever that is possible.

There’s a world of difference between taking a concentrated single micronutrient in supplement form and getting that nutrient from real food. That’s because real food comes with a raft of other micronutrients and properties that make absorption and assimilation of nutrients more efficient. One nutrient or compound complements another and they work in synergy with each other.

A whole food diet with colour and variety provides and abundance of vitamins and minerals in a form that the human body has evolved to process and use. Whereas a pill may not be broken down or absorbed as effectively. Not to mention that so many people are haphazard in taking supplements – they’ll do it for a day or two then forget for a week or two, plus certain nutrients need to be taken in certain ‘food settings’ such as fat soluble vitamins needing to be consumed with fatty foods in order for the body to absorb them.

Are supplements effective, reliable and safe?

Another point is the effectiveness, regulation and reliability of supplements. There are very generalised laws around what is in them and anyone can set up a supplement company – hence celeb-and-influencer-supps and the like. There’s no real guarantee that the amount the label says is in them is actually in them, plus they often come with undesirable fillers and other additives. They are simply regulated under general UK food law, no more than that. In terms of effectiveness, their bioavailabilty can vary according to the type of supplement, e.g. liquid versus pill or according to the physiology of the individual taking them. But the common belief is that they work identically in everyone. This American scientific paper explains some of the pitfalls excellently.

Then there is the serious issue of drug-supplement interactions. Some supplements may interfere with the action of pharmaceuticals and because these products are widely available over-the-counter these risks go unaccounted for.

Then we have the internet and its plethora of available supplements from EVERYWHERE, regulated and unregulated. It really is a hell of job deciding which are best to use.

Is food effective, reliable and safe

Huge question. Eating a varied diet with an abundance of vegetables, nuts, seeds, quality proteins, whole grains and healthy fats is a pretty good approach bringing some wonderful health outcomes. But the soils our foods are grown in can be increasingly deficient in nutrients, due to intensive farming (thankfully now changing with the rise of regenerative agriculture). And the animals we eat, and their products, may be less nutritious now that they are so often fed on a diet of grains rather than being able to graze outside.

Take poultry, so many birds are housed indoors and never get to forage outside; they simple eat the grain that’s fed to them, and that grain has been treated with agrochemicals during its growing cycle. In fact the use of agrochemicals and the extent of indoor-grown veg and fruit can prevent plants from having a rich array of phytonutrients – if the chemicals and growing environment are protecting them from environmental damage and disease there is no need for them to bother forming their own natural phytochemical protection. Knowing the provenance of our food is important.

Is it dangerous to take too many supplements?

Another risk with supplementation is that of doubling-up or more on some nutrients and consuming them in excess. This is particularly the case with fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K because any excess is stored in the body’s fatty tissue rather than being excreted as is the case with water soluble vitamins. Micronutrient excess can cause very serious health issues, as is the case with iron overload where people can end up with heart, liver, joint and thyroid damage and disfunction.

Let’s take the case of someone talking a multivitamin that has 100% of the daily recommended amount of a particular micronutrient. “Fine”, you might think, but they also take a WellWoman or WellMan supplement with many of the same vitamins and minerals, and a separate vitamin D supplement when they are already getting D from their multivit, and perhaps another one that says it’s for health and vitality which again contains some of the same compounds. Hence they’re taking certain nutrients in excess, as well as getting them from food, and can end up with poor health symptoms.

This is not the case with food alone because your body self-regulates intake, it’s far more difficult to consume excess and the nutrients are not in such concentrated forms.

Food first approach

When I write our weekly nutrition plans I ensure an abundance of micronutrient variety and that all the vitamins and minerals are covered in adequate amounts each day. A much tastier and healthier way to take your micronutrients! What might look like a set of random recipes is a carefully thought out framework of nutrient-dense foods, made into delicious meals.

What to do if you think you have a vitamin or mineral deficiency

If you do feel you have a deficiency I advise you to first speak to your GP about your symptoms and signs, they can arrange tests for levels of nutrients such as B12 and iron, plus they can assess whether there are other medical issues. Secondly to speak with a qualified nutrition professional to assess your diet and symptoms.

Get some support

If you would like to talk through your diet you can book a call with me so we can look at the detail of what you eat and how you feel and make changes if necessary.

Vitamin and mineral sheet

Mean time I have put together the table below which shows the foods with the richest source of each micronutrient – a good guide to use when planning your weekly menus. Use the search field to type in the name of the food or mineral to filter the results. You can also download a PDF of the this information.

Search tip: When searching for specific vitamins use quotation marks “” to get the best results.
e.g. “Vitamin C”

FoodNutrient / Vitamin
almondsVitamin B2 - Riboflavin
anchoviesVitamin B3 - Niacin
applesChromium (T)
apricotsPotassium (M)
apricotsVitamin A betacarotene
asparagusFolate
asparagusVitamin B1 - Thiamine
avocadoFolate
avocadoMagnesium (M)
avocadoPotassium (M)
avocadoVitamin B2 - Riboflavin
avocadoVitamin B3 - Niacin
avocadoVitamin B5 - Pantothenic acid
avocadoVitamin B7 - Biotin
avocadoVitamin E
avocadoVitamin E
bananaChromium (T)
bananaMolybdenum (T)
bananaPotassium (M)
bananaVitamin B6 - Pyridoxine
bananaVitamin B7 - Biotin
beans and pulsesVitamin B1 - Thiamine
beans and pulsesVitamin B7 - Biotin
beans and pulsesIron (T)
beans and pulsesManganese (T)
beans and pulsesManganese (T)
Beans and pulsesMolybdenum (T)
beans and pulsesPhosphorus (M)
beans and pulsesVitamin B3 - Niacin
beans and pulsesMagnesium (M)
beans and pulsesSelenium (T)
beans and pulsesFolate
beans and pulsesPotassium (M)
beans and pulsesFolate
beans and pulsesPhosphorus (M)
beans and pulsesPotassium (M)
beans and pulsesVitamin B1 - Thiamine
beans and pulsesVitamin B5 - Pantothenic acid
beans and pulsesVitamin B7 - Biotin
beefChromium (T)
beefVitamin B3 - Niacin
beefVitamin B5 - Pantothenic acid
beef liverIodine (T)
beef liverMolybdenum (T)
beef liverVitamin B2 - Riboflavin
beef liverVitamin B3 - Niacin
beef liverVitamin B6 - Pyridoxine
beef liverVitamin D
black teaManganese (T)
Brazil nutsSelenium (T)
broccoliChromium (T)
broccoliVitamin B7 - Biotin
broccoliVitamin C
brussels sproutsSulfur (M)
brussels sproutsVitamin C
butterVitamin A pre-formed
cantaloupe melonVitamin A betacarotene
cantaloupe melonVitamin C
carrotsVitamin A betacarotene
cauliflowerSulfur (M)
cereal grains (whole)Vitamin K
cheeseVitamin A pre-formed
cheeseVitamin B12
chia seedsCalcium (M)
chickenIodine (T)
chickenVitamin B5 - Pantothenic acid
chickpeasFolate
chickpeasVitamin B6 - Pyridoxine
citrus fruitsVitamin C
clamsVitamin B12
clams and musselsVitamin B2 - Riboflavin
cod liver oilVitamin D
cottage cheeseSelenium (T)
cruciferous vegetablesVitamin C
cruciferous vegetables such as broccoliSulfur (M)
dairyCalcium (M)
dairyIodine (T)
dairyPhosphorus (M)
dark chocolateCopper (T)
dark chocolateMagnesium (M)
dark green leafy vegetablesFolate
dark green leafy vegetablesVitamin A betacarotene
dark green leafy vegetablesCalcium (M)
dark green leafy vegetablesMagnesium (M)
dark green leafy vegetablesMolybdenum (T)
dark green leafy vegetablesVitamin K
dark green leafy vegetablesSulfur (M)
dark green leafy vegetablesPotassium (M)
dried figsCalcium (M)
dried fruitIron (T)
dried fruitPotassium (M)
edamame beansCalcium (M)
edamame beansVitamin K
egg yolkVitamin A pre-formed
egg yolkVitamin D
egg yolkChromium (T)
egg yolkVitamin B5 - Pantothenic acid
eggsFolate
eggsIodine (T)
eggsMolybdenum (T)
eggsSelenium (T)
eggsVitamin B1 - Thiamine
eggsVitamin B12
eggsVitamin B2 - Riboflavin
eggsZinc (T)
eggs (note: raw egg white inhibits absorption and encourages deficiency)Vitamin B7 - Biotin
feta cheeseVitamin B2 - Riboflavin
fishCopper (T)
fishIodine (T)
fishSelenium (T)
fishVitamin A pre-formed
fishVitamin B12
fishVitamin B7 - Biotin
fortified breakfast cerealsFolate
fortified breakfast cerealsVitamin B1 - Thiamine
fortified breakfast cerealsVitamin B12
fortified breakfast cerealsVitamin B2 - Riboflavin
fortified breakfast cerealsVitamin B3 - Niacin
fortified breakfast cerealsVitamin B6 - Pyridoxine
fortified breakfast cerealsZinc (T)
fortified foodsCalcium (M)
fortified foodsIodine (T)
fortified foodsVitamin D
hard cheeseZinc (T)
kiwi fruitVitamin C
liver (avoid in pregnancy)Vitamin A pre-formed
liver (avoid in pregnancy)Folate
mangoVitamin A betacarotene
mangoVitamin E
mangoFolate
milkMolybdenum (T)
milkSelenium (T)
milkVitamin A pre-formed
milkVitamin B2 - Riboflavin
milkVitamin B6 - Pyridoxine
milkZinc (T)
mushroomsVitamin B2 - Riboflavin
mushroomsVitamin B3 - Niacin
mushroomsVitamin B7 - Biotin
musselsVitamin B1 - Thiamine
musselsVitamin B12
musselsZinc (T)
nutritional yeastVitamin B1 - Thiamine
nutritional yeastVitamin B12
nutritional yeastVitamin B3 - Niacin
nutritional yeastVitamin B6 - Pyridoxine
nuts and seedsCopper (T)
nuts and seedsIron (T)
nuts and seedsMagnesium (M)
nuts and seedsManganese (T)
nuts and seedsPhosphorus (M)
nuts and seedsVitamin B1 - Thiamine
nuts and seedsVitamin B7 - Biotin
nuts and seedsVitamin E
nuts and seedsZinc (T)
nuts and seedsSulfur (M)
nuts and seedsVitamin B3 - Niacin
nuts and seedsCopper (T)
nuts and seedsPhosphorus (M)
nuts and seedsVitamin B7 - Biotin
nuts and seedsVitamin E
nuts and seedsVitamin B1 - Thiamine
nuts and seedsVitamin B5 - Pantothenic acid
oily fishVitamin D
olive oilVitamin E
orange and yellow peppersVitamin A betacarotene
orange fruits and vegetablesVitamin A betacarotene
orangesFolate
organ meatsCopper (T)
organ meatsSelenium (T)
organ meatsVitamin B5 - Pantothenic acid
organ meatsVitamin B7 - Biotin
papayaVitamin A betacarotene
peanut butterVitamin E
peanutsVitamin B5 - Pantothenic acid
peanutsVitamin B6 - Pyridoxine
peasFolate
peasVitamin A betacarotene
peasVitamin C
peas and other pulsesVitamin B1 - Thiamine
peppersVitamin C
pineappleManganese (T)
porkVitamin B1 - Thiamine
porkVitamin B2 - Riboflavin
porkVitamin B3 - Niacin
porkVitamin B5 - Pantothenic acid
porkVitamin B6 - Pyridoxine
potatoesPotassium (M)
potatoesVitamin B6 - Pyridoxine
potatoesVitamin C
potatoes with skinMolybdenum (T)
poultryIron (T)
poultryPhosphorus (M)
poultryPotassium (M)
poultrySelenium (T)
poultrySulfur (M)
poultryVitamin B3 - Niacin
poultryVitamin B6 - Pyridoxine
poultryZinc (T)
quinoaMagnesium (M)
quinoaVitamin B2 - Riboflavin
red cabbageVitamin C
red fruits and vegetablesVitamin A betacarotene
red meatVitamin B12
red meatVitamin B7 - Biotin
red meatIron (T)
red meatPhosphorus (M)
red meatZinc (T)
salmonPhosphorus (M)
salmonPotassium (M)
salmonVitamin B1 - Thiamine
salmonVitamin B2 - Riboflavin
salmonVitamin B3 - Niacin
salmonVitamin B5 - Pantothenic acid
salmonVitamin B6 - Pyridoxine
salt and salty foodsSodium (M)
salt and salty foodsSodium (M)
sardinesVitamin B12
sea saltChloride (M)
sea saltSodium (M)
seafoodFolate
seafoodPhosphorus (M)
seafoodSelenium (T)
seafoodVitamin B5 - Pantothenic acid
seaweedChloride (M)
seaweedIodine (T)
seed oilsVitamin E
sesame seedsCalcium (M)
shellfishChromium (T)
shellfishCopper (T)
shellfishIodine (T)
shellfishZinc (T)
shellfish, especially musselsManganese (T)
shiitake mushroomsVitamin B5 - Pantothenic acid
soft fruitsVitamin C
spinachVitamin B2 - Riboflavin
squashVitamin A betacarotene
steakVitamin B2 - Riboflavin
sun-exposed mushroomsVitamin D
sunflower seedsVitamin B1 - Thiamine
sunshine on skinVitamin D
sweet potatoesVitamin A betacarotene
sweet potatoesVitamin B5 - Pantothenic acid
sweet potatoesVitamin B7 - Biotin
table saltChloride (M)
tinned fishZinc (T)
tinned fish with bonesCalcium (M)
tofuCalcium (M)
tofuCopper (T)
tofuMagnesium (M)
tofuManganese (T)
tofuVitamin B1 - Thiamine
tofuVitamin B6 - Pyridoxine
tofuZinc (T)
tofuSelenium (T)
tomato puréePotassium (M)
tomatoesVitamin A betacarotene
tomatoesVitamin C
troutVitamin B1 - Thiamine
tunaVitamin B1 - Thiamine
tunaVitamin B3 - Niacin
wheatgermVitamin E
white beansCalcium (M)
whole grainsChromium (T)
whole grainsCopper (T)
whole grainsMagnesium (M)
whole grainsManganese (T)
whole grainsMolybdenum (T)
whole grainsPhosphorus (M)
whole grainsSulfur (M)
whole grainsVitamin B1 - Thiamine
whole grainsVitamin B3 - Niacin
whole grainsVitamin B5 - Pantothenic acid
whole grainsZinc (T)
whole milkVitamin B5 - Pantothenic acid
wholegrain riceSelenium (T)
widely abundant in foodVitamin B5 - Pantothenic acid
winter squashPotassium (M)
yeastVitamin B1 - Thiamine
yeastVitamin B5 - Pantothenic acid
yeastVitamin B7 - Biotin
yoghurtMagnesium (M)
yoghurtMolybdenum (T)
yoghurtVitamin B1 - Thiamine
yoghurtVitamin B2 - Riboflavin
yoghurtZinc (T)
yoghurt and other dairyMolybdenum (T)

Table of Contents

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Thank you for reading this article. Please note that while we share a lot of awesome information and research you should be aware our articles are strictly for informational purposes and do not constitute medical advice intended to diagnose, cure, treat or prevent any disease.