The debate about “whole food” versus supplements is like the Clash of the Titans in the Nutrition world. But when it comes down to which is better, I’ll take from the Precision Nutrition playbook and say “It depends..”. When it comes down to what is going to help any individual get healthier, there is no one-size-fits-all.
So what exactly do we mean by “whole food”? It is food that is as close to its native form, straight out of the ground or right off the tree. These are your fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, roots and herbs. These are typically foods that do not come in a package nor have they been processed to any great extent. The advantage of including whole foods in your nutrition plan is that their vitamins, minerals, cofactors and fiber are in their original architecture as nature intended. This is in contrast to juices, tablets, powders or capsules that have mirrored the nutrient profile of a particular fruit or vegetable and processed it with chemicals or mechanically into a powder or capsule.
So what’s the difference? If the nutrient profile is the same, then it must be just as good, right? Well, not exactly. How the body processes nutrients when the original architecture is intact, is very different from how the body processes a juice, powder, pill or tablet. For example, let’s consider an apple. Apples are considered a “low glycemic” fruit, meaning, the natural sugar that exists in the apple is slowly absorbed by the body, minimizing insulin rise due to the fibrous structure of the apple itself. If that apple is then processed into apple juice, the fiber is removed and it is now more quickly absorbed resulting in a more dramatic insulin spike. It has now lost its “low glycemic” properties because the fiber was lost in the processing.
Another example is the loss of natural cofactors that exist in a food’s original form that cannot be replicated during processing into a pill, powder or tablet. An example of this is the absorption of iron from a kale salad versus taking an iron supplement. The body will see far more bioavailable iron from a kale salad with a squeeze of citrus. The citrus adds acidity to break down the fibrous scaffolding of the kale liberating the natural iron, then the vitamin C from the citrus and the greens promotes absorption of the iron. This simply cannot be replicated in pill form because the “whole” in “whole foods” is greater than the sum of its parts.
But this certainly doesn’t mean that there is not a place for supplements. Supplements play a critical role in our health and well-being, particularly in cases of food intolerances, deficiencies, medical conditions such as pregnancy and dietary preferences. But what if you just don’t like kale? Supplements also play an important role as a transition into a healthier dietary alternative when you embark on a new nutrition program. When you are moving away from a Big Mac at lunchtime, the jump to the kale salad may be too much and you will be unlikely to adhere to it. Instead, a shake made with powdered greens is most certainly a step in the right direction to get the vitamins and minerals that are missing from the Big Mac. The shake also provides a healthier alternative that is more palatable than the kale salad that you dislike.
In the end, the “best” nutrition program is the one you can stick to. Fortunately, there exists a wide array of options, from the multitude of high-quality dietary supplements to the very foods that nature intended, to design a successful plan to achieve the healthiest version of yourself! ■
Carla DiGirolamo is Board Certified in Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility specializing in the care of women through all stages of life. She was named among the Top Doctors in the Boston area by Boston Magazine in 2019 and 2020. She is also a Crossfit Level 1 Trainer and member of Crossfit Physicians, Les Mills BodyCombat/BodyPump Instructor and Certified Precision Nutrition Level 1 Coach.