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Photo of salmon, avocado and some nuts next to a bottle of supplements that have spilled onto the granite table

Food versus supplements: a doctor's guide

When it comes to nutrient intake, how do the levels in popular supplements compare to some of our favourite foods? Dr Sarah Brewer investigates.

Turmeric

A photo of a curry with a line out to a turmeric tablet, saying 'equivalent to 38 curries - 500mg'

Turmeric is known as the 'golden spice of India' – 90% of the spice is produced on the subcontinent, and it has been used for thousands of years in traditional Ayurveda and Chinese medicines for its perceived benefits. 

To take in the same amount of turmeric as a 500mg tablet, you'd have to eat 38 delicious curries.

Omega 3

A photo of 3 bags of fish and chips, with a line leading to an omega 3 capsule and text saying 'equivalent to 3 portions of fish and chips - 1,200mg'

Dr Sarah Brewer says: "Omega 3 fatty acids act as building blocks for healthy cell walls, and are especially important within the brain."

Fish and chips, along with salmon, mackerel and pumpkin seeds are sources of omega 3. However, oily fish is by far the richest source, so if you don't eat a couple of portions a week, an omega 3 supplement can help.

Plant Sterols

A pile of almonds with a line pointing to a Plant Sterols tablet, text stating 'equivalent to 1,867 almonds - 800mg'

Plant sterols reduce the absorption of dietary cholesterol and are often associated with heart health. Dr Sarah Brewer says: "A sterol-rich diet can lower levels of harmful LDL-cholesterol by up to 15 per cent, to significantly reduce the risk of experiencing a heart attack or stroke."

A single plant sterol tablet is equivalent to 1,867 almonds. That's a lot of marzipan.

Vitamin C

A bowl of oranges with a line out to a vitamin C tablet, text stating 'equivalent to 12 oranges - 1000mg'

Vitamin C has many EU-approved health benefits, from supporting the normal function of the immune system to helping with the production of collagen, which is vital for the health of bone, cartilage, skin, gums and teeth.

You may want to consider a supplement if you're not getting your 5 portions of fruit and veg a day: a high-strength vitamin C tablet has the same amount of nutrient as 12 juicy oranges.

Vitamin D

A bowl of eggs with a line pointing to a vitamin D tablet, text stating 'equivalent to 22 eggs - 25mg'

Vitamin D has a long list of EU-approved health benefits, from its role in immunity to contributing to the maintenance of bones and teeth.

UVB sunlight is crucial for Vitamin D3 production in the body, but this can be tricky to come by in northern countries.

Dr Sarah Brewer says: "The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends that everyone over the age of one year should take a daily supplement providing 10mcg vitamin D throughout the year."

Eggs are a good source of vitamin D, but you'd still need to get through 11 omelettes to match a super-strength tablet.

Dr Sarah Brewer is Healthspan's Medical Director and holds degrees in Natural Sciences, Surgery and Medicine from the University of Cambridge. Having worked as a GP and hospital doctor, Dr Sarah now holds an MSc in Nutritional Medicine from the University of Surrey and specialises in nutrition. She is also an award-winning writer and author.

Find out more at Dr. Sarah Brewer's website, or read more about Healthspan's health experts.

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible, supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.