The other day I met someone who was eager to share his diet with me. He quickly whipped out a sheet from his pocket, which listed all of the fruits and vegetables he consumed on that particular day. I was so excited! The list included several cups of cantaloupe, a couple handfuls of spinach, some tomato and broccoli. Considering some of the diets I’ve seen during my time as an RD, I was immensely impressed. Soon afterwards I realized he was actually showing me what was “in his multivitamin”. He was taking something that claimed to provide the equivalent amount of nutrients as all of those fruits and veggies in one pill. Yikes.

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I didn’t really know what to say….but a lot went through my mind:

1) Wouldn’t you rather eat those foods?! They are so delicious! Ok, so maybe I’m biased because I’m an RD and I happen to love all fruits and vegetables, but come on, the thought of taking all of that good food in the form of a pill is like taking a dose of caffeine instead of drinking a delicious cup of coffee….it just doesn’t make sense!

2) There is a reason why RDs and other health professionals recommend that you space your meals out and not consume too many calories in one sitting. Our bodies just can’t absorb all of those nutrients at once. While it probably won’t harm him, he’s likely wasting his money (although he could be spacing out his multivitamin dose, I didn’t ask).

3) Most supplements or other foods, which claim to provide an amount of nutrients that are equivalent to fruits and vegetables, are forgetting something very important; FIBER! Now I can’t speak for all supplements, because I haven’t researched all of them, but thus far I have yet to find a similar supplement that claims to contain “XYZ fruits and veggies” and which actually has the equivalent amount of fiber (unless it’s something like maltodextrin or polydextrose, which in my opinion just isn’t the same).

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4) Did you know that there are thousands of health-promoting plant compounds that are lurking in our produce, which have yet to be discovered? Do you really think that scientists have found each and every nutrient that plays a role in protecting our body from disease? Do you really think that the makers of such supplements have included every tiny nutrient that is in broccoli, melon, spinach, etc. into their product? My point is that there is a synergy that exists among the thousands of nutrients (many still unknown) found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other foods. They work together in a way that increases their effectiveness and makes them do their job even better! Does that synergy exist in products like these? Likely not.

5) In a recent article from Nutrition Action Healthletter, the concept of taking a lycopene pill to prevent prostate cancer was discussed. It was concluded that while the lycopene pill won’t necessarily hurt you, it will not benefit you to take these pills instead of eating tomatoes. Once again, there are unknown compounds in tomatoes that are likely working with the lycopene to provide their protective benefits.

Bottom Line: Use supplements as they are intended to be used; to supplement the diet, and fill in the gaps. Do not use them to make up for an unhealthy diet, because it just won’t work. Are products, such as the one this guy was taking, harmful? No, but they could indirectly be harmful if you are neglecting fruits and vegetables because of them.

Source: iStock Photo

QUESTION: Have you enjoyed any farmer’s markets yet this season? What about any locally-grown produce in your supermarket?