For those getting a late start on New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier, nutritionists are saying it’s better to get your nutrients from a plate rather than a pill.

For those getting a late start on New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier, nutritionists are saying it’s better to get your nutrients from a plate rather than a pill.


That’s because studies examining the benefits of vitamins have shown that too many vitamin supplements can be bad for you, and overall those who ate healthy food to get their nutrients were in better health overall.


Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School Joann Manson said her team has done "extensive research" comparing the relationship between diet and health outcomes with the effects of supplemental vitamins and minerals. She said these supplements often come up short.


"Our bodies have evolved to consume nutrients from foods rather than from supplements and pills, and foods are a complex lens of many things such as all the phytochemicals, fiber, minerals, so it’s a complex mix of many, many nutrients and they may be synergistic in improving health," Manson said. "So we can’t assume that taking a pill, an isolated micronutrient, is going to be a substitute for a healthy diet."


The key, she said, is to have a balanced diet of healthful foods as much as possible. This includes foods that are minimally processed, so the food’s natural nutrients aren’t lost.


Dietitian for Wilson N. Jones Medical Center Edna Daugherty said vitamins might be useful on occasion, especially if they’re recommended by doctors for patients who have nutritional deficiencies.


"Sometimes during a lifespan, some individuals do need more nutrients that they may not get from their diets," Daugherty said. "Young children, pregnant moms, older individuals who are not eating enough to get a variety of food and the vitamins and minerals that they need would benefit from some type of supplementation."


She urged caution, however, as some vitamins will interfere with one another and cancel out the benefits of a healthy diet.


"Too much iron will interfere with zinc, too much zinc will interfere with copper; the minerals can build up in the system," she said. "… Vitamin E can be a blood thinner, so if you’re taking blood thinners, like garlic and aspirin and those kind of things, then you can have some problems when you go to the doctor if you are taking a medication for blood thinning. You need to not overdo it. A lot of people take the scattershot approach, ‘I need a vitamin so let me just go get A, B, C, D, E.’ … And they’re not eating healthy."


Manson also agreed that taking vitamins can be helpful, and said it was "critical" for women who are pregnant or nursing. She also pointed to people who have malabsorption problems or who are lactose intolerant as individuals who could benefit from supplements. There are, however, certain vitamins that end up decreasing a person’s overall level of health.


"Taking calcium supplements have been linked to an increased risk of kidney stones," Manson said. "In the Women’s Health Initiative, there was a 17-percent increased risk of kidney stones with a combination of calcium and vitamin D, whereas dietary calcium is linked to a lower risk of kidney stones."


She also said a high intake of vitamin A can lead to birth defects and increased bone fracture, and vitamin E can increase the risk of bleeding and hemorrhagic stroke.


"There are lots of examples," she said. "I think there is a general perception that supplements are very safe and … people take very high doses. More is not necessarily better and it’s important to avoid excess intake of these vitamins and minerals and other micronutrients."


She emphasized that people should not depend on vitamins. They should never replace a healthy diet.


"For the most part, supplements are of little value to people who are well nourished and have a well-balanced diet," Manson said. "And they should never be viewed as a substitute for a healthful diet because they will never confer the same benefits as a balanced diet. They’re a safety net."


Daugherty conceded that sometimes vitamins are healthy, but said often times vitamins do not "extend life or improve quality of life."


"Our vitamins and minerals generally are needed in very small amounts, so it’s best to actually just get them from your food that we consume," she said.