top of page

-Food versus Supplements-

Does it matter where children and adults get nutrients, from food or supplements?

Does it matter where children and adults get nutrients, from food or supplements?

To achieve full growth potential, appropriate body composition, and promotion of health and well-being throughout the life cycle an individual must receive proper nutrition and maintain good dietary behaviors during childhood and adolescence, which will reduce the risk of many chronic diseases as the individual enters adulthood.

Children require sufficient energy, protein, and many other nutrients for proper growth, development, and to maintain body functions.

For example, from 11 through 21 years of age, specifically the adolescent years, the individual experiences profound biological, emotional, social and cognitive changes. This dramatic growth and development phase of life increases the need for energy, protein, and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) as 15-20% of their stature, 50% of their adult body weight, and about 40% of their skeletal mass will be achieved during this period. A lack of proper nutrition will be reflected in slower growth, inadequate bone mass, and low body reserves of micronutrients, among other deficiencies.

So, what is the best way to provide the nutrients that we need throughout childhood and into our adult years for this growth, development, and then maintenance for proper physiological functioning of the body, food or supplementation? Let’s take a look…


Food can be defined as any nutritious substance that we consume that supports growth and life.

When we consume the Standard American Diet (SAD) consisting of energy-dense, nutrient-deficient processed food products designed for longer shelf-life, there is a deficit of proper nutrition.

This eating pattern (SAD) is lacking in nutrients and contains many substances shown to be harmful to the body. For example, rodent studies found monosodium glutamate, or MSG, (a food additive found in many packaged food products and fast-food fare today) able to delay puberty and damage part of the hypothalamus in the brain that regulates hunger and another part of the hypothalamus that produces factors for hormones.

Dr. Clifford Lo, associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, recommends dietary adjustments before supplementing to improve an individual’s nutritional status.

Dr. Lo recommends whole food over supplements because nutrients from food contain other beneficial substances like flavonoids, carotenoids, and antioxidants that work synergistically in the body.

Some whole food substances act as cofactors that increase the absorption and bioavailability of other nutrients. For example, kale is a good source of iron and also contains vitamin C, which increases the absorption of iron. Likewise, salmon is a food source of vitamin D (a fat-soluble vitamin), which is better absorbed because of the salmons natural fat content.

Further, Dr. Lo states that supplementing with individual nutrients can be dangerous, as getting too much of a particular nutrient, such as vitamin A, can lead to toxic levels and harm the body if taken too frequently.

Whole foods also contain substances such as fiber, phytochemicals, and water, all essential to our overall health and wellness.

Fiber found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, promotes a healthy microbiome, adds bulk to keep the colon healthy, and slows the absorption of sugar which helps improve blood sugar levels, among other things.

Phytochemicals fight free radicals (as antioxidants) that would harm body cells, and studies have shown that many phytochemicals can reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

And, fruits and vegetables have a high water content that helps to hydrate the body. For example, apples and pears are about 84% water, while bell peppers are about 92% water.


Supplements are specific substances taken to augment, enhance, or enrich the nutritional status of an individual.

The U.S. Congress in the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (1994) defines supplements this way: “a dietary supplement is a product (other than tobacco) that is intended to supplement the diet; contains one or more dietary ingredients (including vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids, and other substances) or their constituents; is intended to be taken by mouth as a pill, capsule, tablet, or liquid; and is labeled on the front panel as being a dietary supplement”.