Plenty of people don’t want to eat vegetables but do want their nutrients. Can multivitamins replace vegetables and if so, which ones?
There are many reasons why vegetables are generally considered crucial in a healthy diet. Most people know this to some extent but prefer supplements anyway.
Unfortunately with the current (lack of) knowledge of science multivitamins and other supplements can not replace vegetables.
In certain situations, multivitamins and other supplements may be beneficial to take and more convenient than vegetables but in a complex system like the human body, they are likely not as good as the real thing.
5 reasons why multivitamins cannot replace vegetables
There are multiple reasons why multivitamins and supplements are not as good vegetables (yet). Knowing these reasons can help you motivate yourself to eat vegetables even if there are reasons you would rather take a supplement.
1. Vegetables have a wide variety of nutrients
Saying there are a lot of different nutrients in vegetables is an understatement. To make this point clearer you can see some of the nutrients in 100 grams of raw spinach (1):
- Vitamin K: 604% of the DV (Daily Value)
- Vitamin A: 188% of the DV
- Folate: 49% of the DV
- Vitamin C: 47% of the DV
- Manganese: 45% of the DV
- Magnesium: 20% of the DV
- Potassium: 16% of the DV
- Iron: 15% of the DV
- Riboflavin: 11% of the DV
- Vitamin E: 10% of the DV
- Vitamin B6: 10% of the DV
- Calcium: 10% of the DV
- Copper: 6% of the DV
- Thiamin: 5% of the DV
- Phosphorus: 5% of the DV
And these are just a part of the vitamins and minerals considered essential. There are plenty of other nutrients in vegetables that benefit your health without being considered essential.
It may be a challenge but you could argue that it is possible to make a multivitamin supplement with these nutrients in these exact ratios. As you will see in the other reasons that would likely still not be as good as vegetables.
2. Hidden nutrients and functions
Nutrition science has come a long way but at the same time there is still plenty it does not yet understand.
First of all, determining every single nutrient in a food that may have an influence on the human body is not as easy.
Secondly, even if these different types of nutrients are found, in a complex system like the human body it is not always clear to what purpose these nutrients serve.
The problem with this is that science sometimes does not recommend certain nutrients because it does not understand their function yet. By doing so, people do not consume these nutrients enough which can lead to negative consequences.
A concrete example is that breastfeeding babies saw a decline in popularity well into the 1970s and lack of popularity after (2). One of the reasons for this is that people thought they could replicate mother milk in man-made products.
Thanks to the advancement of science it becomes clearer and clearer that breastfeeding is actually a lot better than any products that are made in a plant (3). Partly due to nutrients that were previously undiscovered and partly due to processes we do not yet understand.
The same goes for vegetables and multivitamins and other supplements. Some nutrients in vegetables may be undiscovered. Other substances may serve a function we do not yet know of and thus don’t include in these supplements or over/underestimate how much you need of them.
3. Unknown important nutrient ratios
Being healthy is not only about getting enough of certain nutrients. Sometimes the ratio of your intake of one nutrient versus another influences your health too.
As an example, the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats you consume seems to have an impact on your health (4, 5). This was not always known. It is not because science does not know about certain benefits of vegetables that they are not present.
Secondly, your intake of certain nutrients influences the handling of others. For example, your magnesium intake has an influence on your sodium levels (6, 7). Again, nutrients are not only about hitting certain daily goals but also about getting the ratios right.
The natural environment, which for most people means eating vegetables, gets these things right more often than people.
4. Different nutrient absorption rates
Even if the best intakes of nutrients were known, it would not be as easy as making a supplement with nutrients in these quantities. Not every nutrient you eat gets absorbed into your actual body. Due to a wide variety of reasons, including what other nutrients you eat it with, influence how much your body can use.
What ratio of the nutrients you eat is able to be used by your body is different in the case of vegetables compared to supplements (8). These ratios are different for different types of nutrients but also just between different types of the same nutrient supplements.
Natural foods like vegetables are generally again better at getting this at the best levels for health than man-made supplements.
5. Hidden unhealthy substances in supplements
Eating healthy is about getting enough of the right nutrients but also about avoiding unhealthy nutrients. The supplement industry is not as regulated as for example prescription drugs.
One of the consequences of this is that there are multivitamins and other supplements with unhealthy substances like metals in them.
Consuming these types of harmful substances can undo some or all of the supposed health benefits you get from consuming the supplement in the first place.
By now it is more than clear that multivitamins are (not yet) enough to replace vegetables. Some of these reasons may seem solvable on their own but if you look at all of them together it becomes a lot harder.
One day science may be able to replicate vegetables but with the current knowledge and supplements, vegetables will be a lot healthier than multivitamins and other vegetables. Sometimes in ways science does not yet understand.
Even if you struggle with the taste of vegetables there are still ways to eat healthy.
Multivitamins and supplements can still be helpful
The above arguments may make it sound like you should any and all supplements but that is not the case. It is important to start with a healthy diet and on top of that, you can consider multivitamins and supplements. There are also special cases where supplementation makes a lot of sense.
If you do not eat any other nutritious foods a multivitamin and other supplements are also likely better than not consuming any nutrients at all.
According to the second nutrition report of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some of the most common nutrient deficiencies are vitamin B6, Iron, vitamin D, and Vitamin B12 (9). Other nutrients that many people need more of include calcium, iodine, and magnesium (10, 11, 12).
You can start with these but it is also possible you have enough of these but lack others. Something else to keep in mind is that some supplements interact with certain types of medications.
It is likely smart to talk to your doctor before starting a new supplement regime.