This One Nutrient Is Safer to Get From a Pill Than From Food, Experts Warn

As a supplement, it's got all the benefits without any added risks.

Getting the right nutrients is essential to your body's functioning—and can even help protect against disease. That's why it's so important to pack your diet with a wide range of foods that provide crucial vitamins, minerals, proteins, fiber, and more. If you suspect you're lacking a particular nutrient or would benefit from more of it, you may be tempted to buy supplements that give you an added boost. However, experts say there's just one supplement that's truly better to get in pill form than from food. Read on to learn which nutrient is the only one that's best ingested as a supplement, and why it's worth adding to your daily routine.

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It's best to get most of your nutrients through a well-balanced diet.

A young woman eating a salad at a kitchen table

Experts say the best way to get all of your necessary nutrients is to eat a varied diet that's rich in whole foods. According to the Mayo Clinic, this approach offers three key benefits when compared to dietary supplements that come in the form of pills and powders.

First, whole foods offer complex nutrition that provides a wide range of micronutrients, rather than isolated nutrients. They also provide your body with essential fiber, which can "help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, colorectal cancer, stroke, and heart disease," the Mayo Clinic says. Finally, getting your nutrients from food sources provides protective substances such as antioxidants, which protect your cells and tissues.

A complete diet should include "plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats," says Lindsay Delk, RD/RDN, a dietitian of over 20 years. "If you have any specific questions about which nutrients you need more of, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian. They can help create a personalized plan to make sure you're getting everything your body needs," she adds.

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There's one nutrient that experts say may be safer in pill form.

Bottle of omega 3 fish oil capsules pouring into hand

The New York Times recently published a quiz to gauge the public's knowledge of dietary supplements. Following each question, they offered some fascinating facts about the risks, benefits, and uses of many popular products.

In it, Anand Dhruva, MD, the director of education at the Osher Center for Integrative Health at the UCSF, touted the value of taking fish oil in the form of pill capsules over food. "It's always better to get vitamins and minerals from a well-rounded diet than from pills, extracts or powders," the Times wrote. "The one exception may be fish oil, according to [Dhruva]. Fish oil supplements generally have less mercury than fish, especially larger predatory ones, like tuna, swordfish or shark."

Here's how to safely enjoy the benefits of fish oil.

close up plate of salmon over rice and lentils with green beans

Fish oil supplements are made by extracting fat from fish tissue. They're rich in two types of omega-3 fatty acids—eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—both of which can help improve your brain health, heart health, cholesterol, blood pressure, and more. "When looking for a fish oil supplement, it is important to look at the amount of EPA and DHA it contains. Make sure that at least 50 percent of the oil is EPA and DHA," advises Delk. "Most importantly, buy any supplement from a reputable brand with a third-party certification," she adds.

While fish oil supplements offer a mercury-free way to enjoy a wide range of health benefits, you can also get these same benefits with minimal mercury from a select few types of fish. Salmon, sardines, freshwater trout, herring, anchovies, and pacific mackerel are all good options, according to the Mayo Clinic, as are tilapia, cod, and catfish. The American Heart Association recommends eating at least two servings of fatty fish per week if this is your primary source of omega-3s.

Alternatively, you can get your omega-3s from fortified foods such as yogurt, milk, and eggs. For those with a plant-based diet, flaxseed, canola oil, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and soybeans can also provide an omega-3 boost.

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However, some people may still benefit from supplements.

Pregnant woman taking pill at home

While food sources are nearly always the ideal source of nutrients, experts say supplements or fortified foods may still be useful for some people. This includes those who are pregnant or are trying to become pregnant, are age 50 or older, or who have a poor appetite.

Supplements may also be useful for folks who follow a diet that excludes entire food groups, those with medical conditions that affect digestion, people with allergies, and those who have had surgery on their digestive tracts.

Speak with your doctor to learn more about whether supplements are right for you—and whether you may benefit more from sourcing those nutrients from your diet.

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Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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