Dietician and TV presenter Lucy Jones reveals exactly what you need to know about nutritional supplements
We’re forever inundated with advice and information about what we should be eating, and by marketing from nutrition companies about how their supplements could improve our health and wellbeing. But what should we believe?
There’s one thing we can be sure of: our use of supplements is increasing. In a 2016 Mintel survey, some 24 million adults said they’d taken multivitamin and mineral supplements either daily or occasionally in the last 12 months. People decide to take supplements for a variety of reasons – out of a belief that they’ll improve their health, to correct a nutrient deficiency or just to safeguard against any shortfalls from their diet. But do they work?
Do you need to take vitamin and mineral tablets?
There’s no debate that one of the most effective ways to treat a vitamin or mineral deficiency is to supplement that nutrient in the short term and then, where possible, to make dietary adjustments to protect against its reoccurrence. In this instance a supplement can be beneficial and, in some instances, essential. But whether vitamin and mineral supplements have any further benefit to our health above this is hotly debated.
A recent large scientific review of 287,304 individuals did not support the intake of dietary supplements for the prevention of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer, while another found that the most widely used supplements (vitamins D and C, multivitamins and calcium) had no significant effect on the risk of heart-related illnesses.
While the nutrients found in the foods we eat, including proteins, essential fats, vitamins and minerals, are fundamental in keeping our body’s vital functions working optimally, it doesn’t mean that more is always better. Taking a supplement where it isn’t needed is not going to be the key to long-lasting health. In fact, taking excessive amounts of nutrients can cause greater harm than benefit, affecting vital organs such as our liver. That said, there are certain groups and times of life where specific vitamin and mineral supplements are vitally important.
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Is diet more important than taking supplements?
A common myth is that you can compensate for a poor diet by taking a supplement. While individual vitamins and minerals have essential roles in our health, the reality is that food contains much more than this and you can’t supplement your way out of it – if your diet is poor, it should be fixed by making changes to your food choices and your eating habits. This is because the vitamins and minerals found in food are packaged in a very different way to those that are found in a supplement – foods provide a lot more in addition to those vitamins and minerals, such as fibre, fats, and other special plant chemicals (phytonutrients).
Budget vs luxury supplements
Supplements can vary greatly in price, from a basic vitamin and mineral supplement costing as little as £1.50 for a month’s supply up to £20-plus for certain products. While you’re probably familiar with big brand names such as Seven Seas, Centrum or Vitabiotics, this doesn’t necessarily mean that lesser-known (and often cheaper) brands will be inferior. Food supplements are a tightly regulated area, so as long as you buy from a reputable source (even if it’s a cheaper product), you’ll be getting what’s listed on the label.
Generally, it’s advisable to check that the product contains 100% of the Reference Intake (RI) of a specific vitamin or mineral – and no higher. In fact, some of the most economical supplements (sometimes costing the equivalent of pennies per dose) can provide the same level of nutrients as premium-priced supplements.
If you know exactly what you want from a supplement then many low-cost stores, including pound shops, stock them and could save you a significant amount of money. These are less likely to contain ‘buzzword’ nutrients such as ginseng, arginine, methionine and co-enzyme Q10, but many of these have limited evidence bases anyway.
The final point here is to check the recommended daily dose. You may think you’ve found a good-value supplement, only to discover that you need to take three or four tablets a day to get the recommended dose – this is often the case with calcium and omega 3 fatty acid supplements. If a pot of 30 tablets only lasts ten days then it may work out more expensive than you anticipated.
The truth about taking supplements
If you don’t have a medical condition affecting absorption and have a diet containing a wide variety of foods, you probably don’t need to spend money on a supplement – unless you’re advised to by your doctor or live in the UK in winter – as you should be able to get all the nutrients your body needs through your diet. Where they’re indicated to support your health or if your diet is restricted, supplements can support your wellness and guard against nutritional deficiencies. However, these products should never take the place of a healthy, balanced and varied diet – they are just what their name implies: a supplement.
When supplements work
- You’re young: Vitamins A, C and D supplements are recommended for those aged between six months and five years.
- You’re pregnant: All women considering pregnancy, or during the first 12 weeks of their pregnancy, should take a 400ug folic acid supplement to safeguard against neural tube defects.
- It’s winter: Current UK guidelines advise everyone to consider taking a 10ug vitamin D supplement during the months when daylight is restricted.
- You’re low on nutrients: There’s good rationale to use them if you follow a restricted diet, one that’s particularly low in calories for weight loss, have had obesity surgery, or you need to fill in any nutrient gaps diagnosed by a medical professional.
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