Supplements vs. Food

It’s a match-off with vitamin and mineral supplements pitted head to head with food.  Who will win?  Are supplements bigger, better, and stronger than nutrients we get from food?  Is it possible to get all the nutrition we need from supplements?  We’ll look at these questions as we watch this exciting and controversial match unfold.


Supplements vs. Food Podcast Transcript

Hi and welcome to Nutritionally Speaking.  I am your host, Michaela Ballmann.  Today, I will be discussing vitamin and mineral supplements.  Recently, I replied to an e-mail regarding supplements and confusion over how they work and how they should be used.  The question was whether vitamins work if a person isn’t eating (like skipping meals or fasting).  I’m sure we all know people who are dieting to lose weight and think that overloading on vitamins will give them energy.  They believe that they’ll be able to not eat that day and still get all the nutrients that they’re not getting through food.  Do vitamins need food to work?


Most people do not need supplements

This is a great question!  Vitamin and mineral supplements are very popular and growing in popularity as people think that taking supplements is equivalent to or even better than eating food.  The opposite is true.  Getting all the necessary nutrients from food is the best way.  In fact, most people do not need supplements; we get more than enough nutrients from the foods that we eat. There are several groups of people that may need supplements: vegetarians/vegans, older adults, those who are hospitalized/malnourished, etc.

Vitamins fall into one of two categories—water-soluble and fat-soluble.  This means that the vitamin needs either water or fat to be absorbed into the body.  Most vitamins only need water, but the vitamins A, D, E, and K need fat to be absorbed.  People who follow fat-free diets or choose to fast for a long time can become deficient in the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.  These cannot be absorbed if no fat is being ingested.


Vitamins do not give people energy

Another issue is the belief that vitamins give people energy.  Our body’s source of energy is ATP.  ATP is produced when macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat) go through the Kreb’s cycle to produce ATP (energy), carbon dioxide, and water.  ATP is not produced by ingesting vitamin and mineral supplements.

The main source of energy for the body is glucose.  Carbohydrates are all eventually broken down into glucose, which provides energy for the brain, the organs (heart, lungs, etc.), various body processes, and our muscles.  When a person goes on a low-carbohydrate diet or excludes carbohydrates (i.e. fasting, Atkins diet), the body will go into gluconeogenesis, glycogenolysis, and ketogenesis.  These are all names for processes that involve the production of glucose and energy without having carbohydrates or glucose.  First, glycogen stores are used, and when this short-term fuel runs out, protein (from muscles) and fat is broken down to create energy for the brain and body.  This is undesirable.  We do not want our muscles to be broken down when we could be consuming fuel in the form of carbohydrates.  The by-products of the processes I mentioned above also may be dangerous.  When we convert fat to fuel, ketones are produced.  This is very taxing on the body and the long-term effects may involve damage to the liver.


Skipping meals does not help to lose weight

Lastly, the issue of skipping meals is very important.  It is a common belief that skipping meals can help one lose weight and is more effective than slow weight loss.  This is not true.  Slow, steady weight loss of 1-2 pounds a week (by eating 500-1000 Calories less than normal per day) is the best, safest way to lose weight for most people.  When a person skips a meal or doesn’t eat for a day or longer, the body thinks that it is in danger of starving and therefore tries to conserve energy.  The body will want to lower the metabolic rate so that it burns fewer Calories than usual.  Also, when the glycogen (storage form of glucose from carbohydrates) is used up in that day, your body will break down your muscle for energy.  Though fat is eventually broken down, this does not happen unless fasting is occurring for a prolonged time (i.e. a week or more).  Muscle breakdown will be happening at the same time, and it is advantageous to keep all our muscles because that contributes to lean body mass, which helps us burn more Calories.   In essence, by fasting, the body will burn fewer calories, try to maintain the current weight and nutritional status, and will start chipping away at your muscles if it needs to.

So, most vitamins can be absorbed through water, but 4 very important vitamins will not be absorbed if fat is not consumed.  Secondly, vitamins and minerals are not a source of ATP/energy.  Calories from Carbohydrates, Protein, and Fat are required for energy, whether this is from food you eat or from your muscle stores followed by your fat stores.  Lastly, skipping meals and fasting are not the best ways to lose weight.  A slow Calorie deficit of 500-1000 Calories per day will produce a weight loss of 1-2 pounds per week, which is safe and healthy.

I hope that I have clarified some of the issues surrounding vitamin and mineral supplements.  If you have any questions or comments, please write me or go to my website and leave a comment.  Thanks for listening and see you next time!

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