Should you get your nutrients from food or from supplements?
Our nutritionist Rob Hobson answers your most pressing nutrition-related questions each month... This month you asked:
Should you get your nutrients from food or from supplements? In particular, omega 3 supplements versus eating fish.
"I would never advise taking a supplement in place of food, which should always come first as a source of nutrition.
The first thing to explain is the purpose of supplements. These are not intended to be medicines and as the name says are simply a way of supplementing the diet. They also shouldn’t be relied upon as a way of insuring yourself against an unhealthy lifestyle which includes eating a poor diet.
In a perfect world everyone would eat a balanced diet and therefore get everything they need nutritionally but, in some cases, this doesn’t happen and that is when supplements may come in handy and this may just be for a short period of time. Supplements will not contain many of the compounds found in foods, some we don’t even know ourselves and in some cases the levels of absorption of nutrient from supplements may not be as good as food. However, if you're low in a certain nutrient or remove a key food groups from your diet then they may be a good alternative to bridge the nutrition gap.
Examples of when a supplement may be useful:
- Folic acid during the first three months of pregnancy.
- Vitamin D during the Winter months (lack of sunshine).
- Vitamin B12 for vegans (this is notoriously difficult to get in a vegan diet without supplements or eating fortified foods).
- Iron for people diagnosed with iron deficient anaemia (this is more common in women and food alone can be a challenge to get levels back up).
- Probiotics during and after a course of antibiotics (these can wipe out bacteria from the gut).
- Basic multivitamin and mineral if you feel your diet is not quite up to scratch at certain points in time.
As far as omega 3 is concerned then this is a very useful supplement for people who don’t eat oily fish (vegans, veggies or people that just don’t like eating it). You can get omega 3 from nuts, seeds and other plants but the conversion in the body is not very good so a supplement can be a useful way to top up. Vegan omega 3 is sourced from sea algae and as with any supplement I would check that it has been GMP tested as this is standard of approval to show your supplement contains what it purports to contain on the packet.
As far as is it as good as getting omega 3 from oily fish; I would have to say probably not only because my ethos is that food should come first and there are many other health benefits to eating oily fish."