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Supplements vs. Whole Food Plant-Based Diet Part 1

A gentleman called to ask if we could help him with his supplementation. “I take lots of supplements but when the doctor tested some of my vitamin and mineral levels, they were low. I don’t understand how that is possible,” he declared. When he arrived, he had a grocery bag full of supplements in one hand and carrying a box also full of supplements in the other hand. Which ones should he take? This is a common scenario in our office.

Therefore, the next two Wednesdays, we will consider the pros and cons of supplementation.

In today's fast-paced world, with limited time for food preparation, it's not uncommon for individuals to turn to supplements as a quick-fix for meeting their daily vitamin and mineral requirements. However, with the growing popularity of whole food plant-based diets, a pertinent question arises: Is there a difference in the way our bodies absorb and utilize nutrients when sourced from supplements versus a whole food plant-based diet? In this blog, we will delve into the advantages and disadvantages of both approaches to help you make an informed decision about your nutritional intake.

Bioavailability and Absorption:

One of the key distinctions between supplements and whole food plant-based diets is the bioavailability and absorption of nutrients. Whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes, contain a wide array of vitamins and minerals that work synergistically, enhancing the absorption of nutrients. On the other hand, supplements often deliver isolated nutrients, which may not be as effectively absorbed by the body. Also, many of the multivitamin supplements are never even broken down by the body and are found in abundance by those who work in the septic industry, still able to read the trade name on the supplement.

Nutrient Synergy:

Whole food plant-based diets offer a natural combination of vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients, allowing them to interact synergistically. These interactions can lead to enhanced health benefits compared to consuming isolated nutrients through supplements. Every nutrient is depended on another nutrient for absorption. (See charts). For example, iron is dependent on vitamin C for absorption, but vitamin C is dependent on selenium, which is dependent on vitamin E, which is dependent on zinc, which is dependent of vitamin B6 for proper absorption. All of those nutrients are supplied in proper amounts for absorption in a Brazil nut, coconut, spinach, kale, and many other foods but are absent in iron supplements.

Fiber Content:

Whole food plant-based diets are typically rich in dietary fiber, which offers numerous health benefits. Fiber aids in digestion, regulates blood sugar levels, lowers cholesterol, and promotes a healthy gut microbiome. In contrast, supplements do not provide fiber, and individuals relying solely on supplements may miss out on these vital advantages.

Nutrient Imbalance:

Taking supplements can sometimes lead to an imbalance in nutrient intake. For instance, excessive consumption of certain isolated nutrients may interfere with the absorption or metabolism of other nutrients. In contrast, whole food plant-based diets naturally contain a balanced mix of nutrients, reducing the risk of imbalances.

Synthetic vs. Natural:

Many supplements on the market are synthetically produced, attempting to mimic the natural form of vitamins and minerals found in whole foods. However, the body may not always recognize synthetic versions in the same way, leading to differences in absorption and potential health implications. Whole food plant-based diets provide nutrients in their natural form, which is generally better recognized and utilized by the body.

Cost and Convenience:

Supplements can be convenient, especially for individuals with busy lifestyles or specific dietary restrictions. However, they can also be costly in the long run, particularly if multiple supplements are required to meet daily nutritional needs. Whole food plant-based diets, although requiring more planning and preparation, can be more cost-effective in the long term and offer additional health benefits beyond just meeting nutrient requirements.

Two Exceptions:

There are two exceptions, when it comes to supplementation vs. whole foods. We will share those with you next Wednesday.


While supplements can be helpful in certain situations, they cannot replace the array of health benefits that come with a whole food plant-based diet. The bioavailability, nutrient synergy, fiber content, and overall nutritional balance provided by whole foods make them a superior choice for meeting our vitamin and mineral needs. Moreover, choosing a whole food plant-based diet can contribute to improved overall health, longevity, and disease prevention. If you choose to use supplements, we recommend consulting with our registered dietitian before making significant changes to your diet or supplement regimen.

To know what supplement are best for you and your situation, we recommend

scheduling an appointment with our dietitian.


González-Guardia L, Yáñez AM, Risco E, et al. Isolated nutrients versus whole foods: an approach to their roles in health. Adv Nutr. 2019;10(4):S331-S337. doi:10.1093/advances/nmz003

Slavin J. Fiber and Prebiotics: Mechanisms and Health Benefits. Nutrients. 2013;5(4):1417-1435. doi:10.3390/nu5041417

Bailey RL, Gahche JJ, Miller PE, Thomas PR, Dwyer JT. Why US Adults Use Dietary Supplements. JAMA Intern Med. 2013;173(5):355–361. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.2299

Rosanoff A, Dai Q, Shapses SA. Essential nutrient interactions: Does low or suboptimal magnesium status interact with vitamin D and/or calcium status? Adv Nutr. 2016;7(1):25-43. doi:10.3945/an.115.008631


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