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The Best Supplement: Real Food

Written by Portland Clinic of Natural Health on October 17, 2023

In our quest for optimal health, many of us turn to supplements, hoping for quick fixes or a boost in nutrients. While supplements can play a role in certain circumstances, growing evidence supports the idea that the best supplement is, in fact, real food.

Why is Real Food Superior?

Complex Nutrient Profile: Whole foods offer a myriad of nutrients - vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and more. They work synergistically, meaning the combined effect is greater than if consumed individually. For instance, oranges provide vitamin C alongside flavonoids, fiber, and several other compounds, which together contribute to health in ways a simple vitamin C pill can't match.

Bioavailability: Nutrients in whole foods are often more readily absorbed. For instance, iron from animal sources (heme iron) is more efficiently absorbed than the iron in most supplements.

Fiber and Digestive Health: Real foods, especially plant-based ones, are rich in fiber. This not only aids digestion but also supports a healthy gut microbiome, which is crucial for overall health. Supplements don’t typically provide this benefit.

Safety and Balance: Overconsumption of certain supplements can lead to toxicity, whereas it's challenging to overdose on a nutrient from whole foods. The balance of nutrients in whole foods also ensures that we aren't getting too much of one nutrient at the expense of others.

The Role of Supplements:

While real food should always be the primary source of nutrients, supplements can play a role in specific scenarios: (1)

  • Addressing deficiencies, especially in cases of malabsorption or certain health conditions.
  • Special diets or life stages, such as B12 for vegans or folic acid for pregnant women.
  • Situations where food access is limited.

Real Food Unmatched in Its Nutrient Complexity

While the world of supplements offers allure with its promises, real food remains unmatched in its nutrient complexity and health benefits. By focusing on a diet rich in whole foods, we harness nature's power to support optimal health. (2)


  1. Crocker SH. Real food matters for health. J Psychosoc Nurs Ment Health Serv. 2010 Oct;48(10):48-54. doi: 10.3928/02793695-20100831-02. Epub 2010 Sep 22. PMID: 20873703.
  2. Esquivel MK. Nutrition Benefits and Considerations for Whole Foods Plant-Based Eating Patterns. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2022 Apr 22;16(3):284-290. doi: 10.1177/15598276221075992. PMID: 35706588; PMCID: PMC9189583.

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