Ask the Diet Doctor: Plant-Based vs. Synthetic Supplements
Q: Are plant-based vitamins and supplements better for me than synthetic versions?
A: While the idea that your body absorbs plant-based vitamins and minerals better than synthetic ones sounds like it should be true, it isn't. This mistake is often made with greens supplements. It is easy to assume because a powder is green and the ingredient list reads like the produce section at Whole Foods that it can replace your multivitamin and provide all the vitamins and minerals that you need. And this is a dangerous assumption. Unless your greens supplement states explicit levels of vitamins and minerals, don't assume they are there-they probably aren't.
The bioavailability of a vitamin or mineral is more important than its origins. For example, if you are choosing between vitamin D2 from a plant-based supplement or vitamin D3 from a synthetic supplement, pick the synthetic supplement with vitamin D3, as it has better bioavailability.
Also crucial: Watch out for mega-dosed vitamins, and instead choose moderately-dosed versions that supply 100 percent of the RDA or less, which is more common in plant-based supplements.
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However, because plant-based supplements are a very inefficient mode of delivering vitamins and minerals, it can often take four to six capsules to deliver the same amount of nutrients as one small synthetic vitamin. This is because there are extra components from the foods-based supplements, containing the vitamins and minerals, while a synthetic vitamin normally contains only the vitamins and minerals themselves. Many of my clients make supplement decisions based on how many pills or capsules they need to swallow, so this difference does matter for many people.
Just keep in mind that lower doses of vitamins are preferred in general, as you should aim to meet as much of your vitamin and mineral needs as possible from the foods that you eat. Taking this approach will improve the overall quality of your diet. You can then use supplemental vitamins and minerals to fill in any nutritional gaps or personal nutritional requirements you have.