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Food First: Why Prioritize Food Over Dietary Supplements for Nutrition

The importance of nutrition is a well-known concept by healthcare experts and patients alike. And yet, around 90% of Americans don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables. 

To make up for it, many are turning to dietary supplements in hopes of bridging the nutritional gap. In fact, 75% of adults in the US rely on a dietary supplement as their one-stop-shop for all of their nutritional needs. 

Despite good intentions, prioritizing pills over eating healthfully may be a flawed way of thinking. On their own, vitamins and mineral supplements are not enough to sustain the health of a healthy individual — and they’re certainly not enough to keep hospitalized patients healthy, either. 

The Role of Nutrition in a Patient’s Health - Adequate and balanced nutrients are necessary to heal wounds, control chronic illnesses, and build or maintain strength for recovery. Source: Health Affairs


Dietary supplements are no match for a robust nutrition plan. With the guidance of a registered dietitian and healthcare provider, patients can access the benefits of wholesome, nutritious food as they heal. However, there are still situations when supplements may become helpful, if not necessary. 

Here is why nutrition through food should be a priority for hospital patients — and when supplemental nutrition may be needed.  

The Importance of Nutrition During a Hospital Stay

Whether patients are in the hospital for surgery, illness, or other medical concerns, they need strength to recover. This is why it’s critical for patients to be screened upon admission, which may highlight the need for supplements or the intervention of a registered dietitian.  

Vitamins and minerals are critical for healing, including: 

  • Protein, which aids wound healing and supports the immune system
  • Vitamin C and zinc, which heal and create collagen to repair surgical wounds
  • Calcium, which strengthens bones
  • Vitamin D, which strengthens bones and aids in wound healing
  • Fiber, which can ease constipation related to pain medications 

Without these vitamins and minerals, a patient’s body is less equipped with the necessary resources to heal and recover from their injury or illness.  

How Malnutrition Can Impact Patient Health

Unfortunately, patients in the hospital run a serious risk of malnutrition, which is not eating enough or not eating the right foods. In fact, about 1 in 5 pediatric patients and about 1 in 3 adult patients over 60 years old is estimated to be malnourished during their hospital stay. 

The Serious Risk of Malnutrition - Patients who don’t eat their food during a hospital stay may have a 6 times higher risk of death than those who do. Source: Beckers Hospital Review


Malnutrition can also lead to increased cost of care due to higher risk complications, such as pressure ulcers, infections, and in serious cases, death.  

With proper nutrition, patient outcomes can be improved. One study of four Chicago hospitals revealed that when malnourished patients received nutrition-related treatment and support, their readmissions were reduced by 27% and length of stay was decreased by 25%. 

The Limitations of Dietary Supplements 

The role of nutrition for hospital patients is paramount. As a result, healthcare providers may turn to supplements — an understandable, but occasionally misguided, approach.  

Supplements are not usually a substitution for food because they are unable to replicate all of the nutritional benefits of whole foods on their own. Benefits that come from whole food that supplements lack include: 

  • Greater nutrition from its complex variety of micronutrients
  • Essential fiber, which can prevent diseases (such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes) and help manage constipation
  • Antioxidants, which are protective substances that can slow down cell and tissue damage

In fact, vitamins and minerals, including vitamin A, vitamin K, magnesium, and zinc, have all been associated with a lower risk of death — but only if those nutrients are from food.  

In addition, the body may be unable to fully absorb some vitamins when they come from supplements. Without food, certain fat-soluble vitamins will go right through a patient’s system without ever being absorbed. This makes it easy to assume patients are getting the nutrition they need when, in fact, they are not.  

Some supplements also come with health risks — ones that may be avoidable when the nutrients come from food. For instance, high doses of calcium from supplements have been shown to increase a person’s risk of dying from cancer by 53%. However, excess calcium through food is not associated with the same increase in mortality risk.  

This suggests the body is able to clear a surplus of nutrients through food — but not always from supplements.  

A nutritional plan consisting of whole food can go a long way toward benefitting the recovery of the majority of patients. With a purposeful plan, careful monitoring, and consistent support, patients can receive the energy and resources they need during their hospital stay.  

Do Any Patients Need Supplemental Nutrition?

While the nutrition of hospitalized patients is critical, there may be factors that make it more difficult for them to receive nutrition through food alone. In those cases, supplemental nutrition may need to be integrated into their nutritional plan.  

For instance, certain types of dietary supplements may be needed for patients who:

  • Are pregnant
  • Are over 50 years old
  • Are unable to eat well or consume enough calories, such as patients undergoing cancer treatment
  • Have a medical condition that affects their ability to absorb nutrients, such as chronic diarrhea or disease of the liver, gallbladder, pancreas, or intestines
  • Have undergone surgery on their digestive tract and are unable to digest and absorb nutrients 

Dietary supplements require the guidance of a healthcare professional. Without careful monitoring, supplements may cause harmful side effects if taken in certain combinations, with some prescription medications, or before a medical surgery. 

Taking more than the recommended daily value (DV) can also be dangerous for patients, and it can increase their risk of side effects. 

No matter a patient’s health condition, achieving an optimal nutritional status should be one of the primary goals of their care plan. This may be done through food or food in combination with dietary supplements, but in any case, a patient will always require a nutritious, healing diet.  

Do you have questions about how a nutrition plan can benefit patient outcomes? One of Sodexo’s 4,000 dietitians may be able to help.

August 11, 2020

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