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Vitamins and Supplements – The Benefits of Food First

  • Vitamins and supplements are a big area of conversation, controversy, and research. When considering ways to ensure that you are getting the nutrients you need for optimal health, it's important to think about the benefits of "food first."

    We know that people who eat a variety of plant-based foods gain important health-promoting nutrients (called phytonutrients). Different phytonutrients are associated with different types of foods — which is why it's important to eat a variety of foods "by the rainbow." For example, red fruits and vegetables contain lycopene, an important antioxidant. What makes carrots and sweet potatoes orange is another antioxidant in the same family as lycopene, called beta-carotene. One of the many phytonutrients found in blueberries are anthocyanins, which give blueberries their intense blue color, in addition to providing several health benefits, including immune support.

    Many of these examples of phytonutrients found in food also come in pill form. But there are some considerations for why it's advantageous to consider food first:

    • The way that nutrients work in pill form may be different from the way they work in food form in the body.
    • Some high-dose antioxidants taken in pill form during certain types of cancer treatment can actually reduce the effectiveness of that treatment, whereas getting antioxidants from foods does not interfere with the potency of treatment.
    • Supplements may be made with additional ingredients that interact with treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery.
    • Getting vitamins into your diet is easier than you think by eating a plant-based diet.

    Some supplements might be necessary. For example, when you're going through treatment, you may have low blood levels of certain nutrients, like magnesium or Vitamin D. Your doctor can perform a blood test to determine your Vitamin D level and whether it is appropriate for you to take a supplement to address a deficiency. But on the whole, eating food first is the best approach to getting your vitamins and nutrients. And if you decide that you want to explore taking certain vitamins or supplements, it's always important to talk with a dietitian and your doctor before starting a supplement regimen.

    Learn more about nutrition services at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and how you can eat well during cancer treatment.

    Try a sampling of some healthy recipes to help you to boost your intake of phytonutrients through foods:

    Explore answers to questions posed to our nutritionists on vitamins and supplements:

    View more "Eating Well During Cancer" videos.

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