How Do Supplements Work?

We’ve all heard that taking nutritional supplements is generally a good idea. But how do they work? What exactly do they do? Can’t you get the same nutrition from simply eating a good diet? Nutritional supplements, as it turns out, function in a way that assists a well-balanced diet, and they can sometimes help with other health concerns.

Nutritional supplements vary widely in what they offer and how they help us. From giving us a lot of different vitamins and minerals all at once like a multivitamin to providing targeted supplements like fish oil, protein powder or cranberry extract, nutritional supplements run the gamut in terms of what they can offer to support our diets and our health. 

Food and Supplements

It might seem like, since nutritional supplements offer all of the vitamins and minerals that you would normally get in food, you could just eat a handful of supplement pills and not have to worry about taking the time to eat anything. Well, this is not the case. Aside from the fact that food is delicious, food gives us other things besides these vitamins and minerals, that are fundamental to our ability to function. These include calories, fats, carbs, enzymes, fiber, and all kinds of other things that our bodies need to get directly from food. Not to mention, swallowing a bunch of nutritional supplements on an otherwise empty stomach is a good way to give yourself one heck of a stomach ache, or worse.

The key to how nutritional supplements work is in their very name itself. A “supplement” is something that is additional to something else. In this case, nutritional supplements are supplemental to a balanced diet. Supplements were never intended to replace your diet. They are intended to fill in the gaps in your diet.

Even if you eat a pretty healthy diet, chances are you’re not getting all of the vitamins and minerals you need. Sometimes the vitamins and minerals we need are in hard-to-find places or foods that aren’t consumed by your local population. It can be tough to get the vitamins from a mango if you live in Norway, because mangoes simply don’t grow there (and transporting them means they often lose a lot of their nutrient profile on the way to you, but that’s another post entirely). You might think that you’re eating well, but you actually aren’t getting all of the vitamins and minerals your body needs to function at its best simply because those vitamins and minerals aren’t available in the food you eat.

The Role of Supplements

This is where supplements come in. While whole food sources are always the best way to get your complete nutrient profile, sometimes it can be hard to get everything you need from your food. If this is the case, taking a nutritional supplement can help replace the vitamins you’re missing in your diet. One good example is essential fatty acids, or EFAs. EFAs are found in a lot of different foods, but unless you are consuming a lot of fish or flax oils in your diet, you won’t get all of the EFAs you need. EFAs are found in peanut butter, flaxseed, salmon, and many other foods, but those found in peanut butter -called Omega-6 fatty acids- are actually abundant in our diets and we don’t need to consume any more of them. 

The EFAs that are abundant in salmon and flaxseeds, which are called Omega-3 fatty acids, are harder to come by and are often not a part of our regular diet. Unless you’re eating a lot of fish or a lord of flax oil regularly, you may be missing out on some crucial EFAs. And EFAs are instrumental in brain development, muscle growth, cardiovascular activity and more. It only makes sense to take supplements of EFAs, then — well, unless you just want to change your diet and start eating a lot more fish. You can help fill the gaps in your diet by taking supplements containing fish or flax oils, which have these EFAs in them. 

So while supplements aren’t a replacement for food, they can be a reliable way to get the vitamins and minerals your body needs to support your body’s functions. Additionally, some supplements can be helpful in highly specialized situations. Athletes, for example, often rely on supplemental drinks and foods that help them get the nutrition they need quickly. An athlete who is about to run a sprint may not want to down a cup of coffee with sugar first to perk them up — that can be messy and difficult to manage. The same sprinter may not want to sit down to a meal of roast chicken and vegetables immediately following their sprint either. It can actually be really hard for athletes to eat because of the way their bodies are functioning to be the best in their sport. 

That same sprinter, though, can grab a pack of caffeinated jelly beans or a caffeinated gummy snack right before sprinting, consume it easily, and then afterwards drink a smoothie or a shake made with protein powder to help repair their muscles after all of the exertion they just expended. These kinds of supplements are much easier to manage and can give targeted support right where it’s needed. 

Supplements can also be helpful to take in terms of prevention. While research on this is mixed, many studies indicate that increasing your levels of Vitamin C and Zinc, both important to the function of the immune system, can potentially prevent you from getting sick. Furthermore, research suggests that if you are sick and begin to supplement your diet with immune boosting supplements such as these, your symptoms may not be as harsh, and you may recover more quickly from your illness. Supplements can be extremely effective when applied properly. 


Supplements can be helpful, whether you’re needing to recover after a run or a bike ride, trying to ward off colds during the winter months, or just trying to keep in tip-top shape. As with anything involving your health and well-being, ask your doctor if you should add supplements to your diet and, if so, which supplements are right for you to take.