Do we really need dietary supplements?
There is a huge range of dietary supplements available now to buy both in store and online. These include vitamins, minerals, multi-nutrient combinations, herbals, proteins and amino acids, fish oils and more. There are now thousands of products and manufacturers on the market. Choosing dietary supplements is difficult if you don’t know the basics of what nutritional supplementation is all about, and when do we need them.
Function of supplements
Firstly, nutritional supplements can compensate for inadequate intake of nutrients in the diet. This is often caused by a poor dietary intake through ‘normal foods’ and the loss of nutrients through processing, storage and cooking. Multi-vitamins and minerals serve this purpose; a general top up either now-and-again or regularly. Millions of people use this approach.
Another approach is targeting specific reason. For example, taking Vitamin C and Zinc to help reducing the effects of a cold or flu, on an ‘as needed’ basis.
Also targeted, but over a longer time may be the use of fish oils to reduce the risk of heart or other vascular problems. Folate before and during pregnancy can reduce the risk of neural tube defects in the baby.
Supplements may be used as ‘ergogenic aids’ as well. Such products aim to improve aspects of human performance — either exercise or work related. This includes things like creatine for muscle building, caffeine based products for concentration and endurance and protein supplements for muscle building.
The supplement industry has responded to people’s interest in nutrition by producing more products with a wider range of claimed or implied benefits. These range from weight loss, to anti-ageing, to hair, skin and nails benefits and so on. With so many things on offer, what is the best way to judge whether a supplement is the right approach?
Is a supplement needed?
Person eating a varied diet with high levels of seasonal fruit and vegetables and a good fatty acid mix and lean protein sources doesn’t need most nutritional supplements. Sometimes, however, meals are more convenient than nutritious. Smoking, alcohol and caffeine use, heavy exercise, and work patterns, can make taking a supplement good idea. In addition, the elderly, pregnant women, dieters, smokers and drinkers, heavy exercisers and those with eating disorders or just poor diets may all benefit from additional nutrient input.
Can supplements cure disease?
Mostly nutrition is prophylactic with respect to disease. That means the right nutrition can help to prevent rather than cure disease. If a serious illness occurs the most important thing is to follow your clinician’s advice. But given that prevention is better than cure, there is certainly a role for targeted supplement use, especially in the groups already mentioned. In addition, when disease occurs it is sometimes helpful to supplement the normal diet with extra calories or micronutrients to aid recovery.
Are dietary supplements safe?
Many people worry about ‘popping pills’, whatever they may be. While most nutritional supplements are safe when taken as directed, it is true that the long term effects of multiple supplement use is simply not known. In addition, some supplements, like Vitamin A and Vitamin B6 can be directly toxic in overdose. It makes sense to get information and supplements from a trusted source. If in any doubt, always consult with a qualified practitioner.
In terms of quality, there are a couple of things you can look out for. The GMP, or Good Manufacturing Practice kitemark is a sign that the product is of a certain marketable standard. Also, large manufacturers tend in general to have more quality control procedures in place.
What about herbal preparations?
It is possible to purchase many different herbal preparations today. Of these, some have quite potent effects. They can be very helpful for a range of conditions, for example St John’s Wort for mild depression. Given their bioactive nature it is usually wise to purchase from a trusted source and/or consult with a qualified practitioner on their use. Also, if you are taking any prescribed medicines, it is important to check with your doctor about any potential side effect.
Dietary Supplements – Summary
Nutritional supplements can be a useful way to make up for ‘gaps’ in our diet or compensate for aspects of lifestyle that place extra nutritional demand on us. They cannot however take the place of a varied, nutrient-dense diet. In addition, any symptoms should always be discussed with a health care professional and not self-diagnosed or treated. If you are interested in a particular supplement, the internet can provide a wealth of information on those nutrition aids available. Take care to find scientific studies which to build a balanced picture of the likely usefulness of a given product. As a general rule, articles without references are less reliable.