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Are supplements a healthy means of getting vital nutrients?

Can a person live off vitamin supplements alone? Not really. Here's why.

Imagine never having to cook or go grocery shopping again. With the number of supplements available in our complimentary health approach obsessed society, would it be possible to survive on supplements alone? Let's take a look.

What do supplements do?

Let's first tackle what the purpose of supplements are. Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD of WebMD, states, "Experts say there is definitely a place for vitamin or mineral supplements in our diets, but their primary function is to fill in small nutrient gaps. They are 'supplements' intended to add to your diet, not take the place of real food or a healthy meal plan."

Can you survive while only taking supplements?

Vitamins and other dietary supplements are not intended to be a food substitute. They cannot replace all of the nutrients and benefits of whole foods.

Roberta Anding, MS, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and director of sports nutrition at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, explains, "They can plug nutrition gaps in your diet, but it is short-sighted to think your vitamin or mineral is the ticket to good health - the big power is on the plate, not in a pill."

Karen Ansel, a registered dietician, also agrees that it is always better to get your nutrients from food.

"Food contains thousands of phytochemicals, fiber, and more that work together to promote good health that cannot be duplicated with a pill or a cocktail of supplements," says Ansel.

A real-life example

David Morton of U.K. Men's Health attempted to live off only supplements and protein shakes for a week. In summary, here is what he found:

Morton states that he is "not genuinely worried about the day you'll be having a pill for dinner being any time soon. Sure, two fish oil pills contain roughly the same amount of omega-3 as a salmon fillet and, on the face of it, are much cheaper. But the extent to which a synthesized supplement promises the same benefit as the naturally packaged nutritional promise of food is hard to ascertain. All the qualities of food combine and interact to deliver their goodness."

This is reiterated by Professor Christine Edwards, head of human nutrition at Glasgow University.

"If you try to dissect the part of a vegetable that is good - vitamins, fiber, antioxidants, anti-inflammatories - you pull apart some of these interactions," says Edwards.

Morton did not feel overwhelmingly well during this test, one of the main problems being that it was easy to overdose on certain vitamins or minerals that caused uncomfortable side effects like bloating, gas and digestive issues. He also experienced common side effects of being hungry, like irritability, headache, lack of focus, etc.

So what supplements should you take?

When considering what supplements to take, Zelman also suggests to "Take stock of your diet habits. Evaluate what is missing in your diet. Are there entire food groups you avoid? Is iceberg lettuce the only vegetable you eat? If so, learn about the key nutrients in the missing food groups, and choose a supplement to help meet those needs.

"As an example, it makes sense for anyone who does not or is not able to get the recommended three servings of dairy every day to take a calcium and vitamin D supplement for these shortfall nutrients."

With that being said, Nancy Clark of Livestrong suggests that a daily multivitamin is usually a safer bet than a cocktail of supplements. Choosing a multivitamin that provides 100 percent or less of the recommended daily value as a backup to plug the small nutrient holes in your diet is a great way to make sure you're getting what you need, especially if you are pregnant, could become pregnant or elderly.

Supplements are a wonderful way of supplementing a diet, but using them as one's only source of obtaining nutrients is less-than-ideal for your overall health and wellness. Supplements are for supplementing a diet and meals, not replacing them.

Before changing your diet or adding supplements to your daily regimen, be sure to consult with a physician.

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