Food, Not Supplements, Hold the Key to Good Nutrition

A new study looked into the association between risk of death and dietary supplement use — and the results may surprise you.

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

While you may feel super proud of yourself when you take your daily supplements every morning, new research shows they won’t actually reduce your risk of death. And in some cases, they may do more harm than good.

Getting certain nutrients directly from the food you eat can help reduce your risk of death — and other health problems — but when you’re getting the nutrients from dietary supplements? Not the same, according to the study published April 9 in Annals of Internal Medicine. And to top it off, researchers found that taking too much extra calcium in supplement form can actually increase your risk of death from cancer.

In this study, researchers assessed data from more than 27,000 U.S. adults ages 20 and up, from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey as well as the National Death Index. Using the data, they looked at the association between dietary supplement use and death — from all causes, such as cancer and heart disease.

They found that getting the right amount of nutrients like magnesium and vitamin A could reduce your risk of death — but the source of those nutrients was key. Results showed that if you aren’t getting the nutrients you need, getting them from dietary supplements doesn’t lower your mortality risk. And certain supplements may actually hurt you in some situations. Bummer, we know.

For example, the study found that people with no sign of vitamin D deficiency who take vitamin D supplements anyway actually have an increased risk of death. And people who take supplements of 1,000 mg of calcium a day had increased risk of cancer — but not when they got their calcium from foods.

"As potential benefits and harms of supplement use continue to be studied, some studies have found associations between excess nutrient intake and adverse outcomes, including increased risk of certain cancers," said study author Fang Fang Zhang, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, in a press release. "It is important to understand the role that the nutrient and its source might play in health outcomes, particularly if the effect might not be beneficial."

So how can you get the nutrients you need from the best source for your body: food? Here are some nutrient-rich foods to keep stocked in your kitchen, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

  • Calcium: Nonfat and low-fat dairy and dairy substitutes; dark, leafy greens; and broccoli

  • Vitamin D: Salmon, canned tuna, shrimp, egg yolks, and fortified foods like cow’s milk, orange juice, and cereals

  • Potassium: Bananas, cantaloupe, nuts, fish, spinach and other dark greens, and raisins

  • Vitamin A: Carrots, sweet potatoes, eggs, milk, and cantaloupe

  • Fiber: Whole-grain foods, dried beans and peas, seeds, and colorful fruits and veggies

  • Vitamin E: Whole-grain foods, avocados, nuts, seeds, and spinach and other dark greens

  • Magnesium: Almonds, black beans, spinach, and peas

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at