This is a huge subject of various discussions which could have resulted in a very long post. I’ve summarised the main points below, in order to keep it as concise as possible, providing what I believe are the main points of this subject that we all need to know.
I provide this information, as I do all my nutritional information, as a “resource”. You may, of course, wish to do your own further research on the topics I list and discuss below.
Dietary supplements are pretty much available in any large grocery store nowadays, as well as online. No longer as they just found in your “specialist” health food stores.
Every day we receive conflicting messages from the media as to whether or not we should be taking dietary supplements. So should we, and just what are the best ones and what is the evidence that they have benefits for us?
What are dietary supplements?
A dietary supplement is intended to provide nutrients that may otherwise not be consumed in sufficient quantities in an average daily diet. Dietary supplements are eaten or taken orally. Examples include tablets, capsules, powders, sports drinks and energy bars. They are however, not to be considered as a substitute for food.
Why take dietary supplements?
People take dietary supplements mainly for the reason that they believe these will be beneficial for their overall health, or because their GP has recommended them, after a deficiency has been diagnosed. Those taking supplements, not advised to do so by their GP’s, do so in the hope of improving or maintaining their general health and wellbeing, and/or extending their lives.
What are dietary supplements taken for?
Here, I’ve listed the most common health reasons for taking dietary supplements:-
- Improve overall health
- Maintain health
- Immune system
Taken from “Targets of supplement use (%age of 2009 retail value) Vitamins and dietary supplements in the UK, Euromonitor International 2010.
What types of dietary supplements are consumed?
Here I’ve listed some of the most common supplements taken, also from the same survey as above:-
- Protein Powder
- Single vitamins A, B, C, D and E
- Probiotic supplements
- Herbal / traditional eye supplements
- Calcium and other mineral supplements
- Fish oils
Should you be taking dietary supplements?
The answer to this question depends on an individual’s personal circumstances.
There are certain vitamins, minerals and nutrients that are essential for our wellbeing. However, experts agree that the majority of people can get enough of these nutrients from eating a sensible, healthy balanced diet, as well as getting enough sunlight.*
There is evidence to suggest that certain groups of people, such as young children, the elderly and pregnant women may benefit from taking certain supplements. An individual should see their GP for professional advice to ascertain whether or not they are in the class of “certain groups”.
Claims that some supplements make.
Manufacturers make all sorts of claims to promote the so called “health benefits” of their products. If a manufacturer claims that their supplement cures or treats a condition, here in the UK, they are subject to legal regulation to prove that.
However, manufacturers can make claims that their products “maintain” a bodily function, this is regulated under UK food laws. Also (in the UK) the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) can take action against false or misleading claims, and ask manufacturers to remove such claims on their products.
We have a huge problem here though. Whilst in the UK, there are steps that we can take to limit the false claims on some supplements, it’s more difficult to “police” the Internet. Here people can use popular search engines to search for more or less anything supplement wise, the products which may originate outside the UK can more or less claim any health benefits they like, not being subject to UK legislation.
Do I need Vitamin supplements?
We all know that vitamins are essential for maintaining our health and vital for our bodies to function properly. You can read all about what vitamins and minerals do for us here.
The thing is, our bodies only need 13 vitamins to maintain healthiness, these are the vitamins A, C, D, E, K and the eight B vitamins, each of which has specific functions in the body. But why are we buying so many vitamin supplements? It’s because manufacturers promote these products heavily to us, citing their specific individual benefits, such as vitamin C helping to keep our cells healthy or vitamin A being good for eyesight and maintaining healthy skin. It’s little wonder then that vitamin pills are very popular. Along with fish oils, here in the UK, they dominate the supplements market.
Whilst there’s little or no danger in taking vitamin supplements, only certain groups of people are considered to actually need them. As we need only minute amounts of these vitamins, we can actually get enough vitamins by eating a balanced and varied diet.
The UK NHS (National Health Service) guidelines specify we should be eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, heart healthy whole grains, fish and lean meats and some dairy products, whilst keeping foods high in fat and/or sugar, and alcohol at a minimum. Vitamin D though, is an exception as a small amount is obtained through diet, but most is made under the skin when we are exposed to sunlight.
What about Weight-loss supplements?
There is no miracle cure pill. But you knew that didn’t you?
Every year millions are spent by an increasingly overweight population on slimming products that claim to be a “miracle” weight loss solution. Many of these products claim that they’ve been through stringent trials and have proof that they work. Unfortunately, in many cases these “trials” have been led financially by the manufacturers themselves who obviously have an interest in proving they work.
Worse still, some products, and particularly those sold over the internet could be full of potentially harmful substances. Would you want to risk your health for something you didn’t know the proper ingredients of? Examples of some ingredients found to be included in some dietary supplements include hydroxycitric acid (which causes stomach pain), Chitosan (Gastrointestinal symptoms) and Ginko biloba (headaches, dizziness, bleeding, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, heart palpitations and restlessness). This list is not exhaustive.
Rather than turning to weight-loss supplements, your GP is the first person you should seek advice from. In the UK, your GP is free, through the NHS, and can refer you to further specialist health professionals (e.g. dieticians or nutritionists) who will help you achieve your weight loss goals through a balanced diet and ways to increase your activity levels.
What about Fish Oils?
There’s a great deal of emphasis put on eating more oily fish in our diets today, such as mackerel and herring. These fish (and some plants) contain Omega-3 fatty acids, this being extremely important for our overall wellbeing and good health. The body cannot make Omega-3 and it must be obtained from our diet or other external sources.
Again manufacturers and the media heavily promote the numerous health benefits of Omega-3, based on studies (which are still ongoing and not yet conclusive) relating to possible benefits for people with heart disease or high cholesterol. There are also claims that fish oils boost brainpower and memory.
Consumption of a minimum of two portions of fish per week, one of which is an oily fish (such as mackerel or herring) are recommended. Again here though, it is through a good diet that our bodies can get an adequate source of Omega-3, not through supplements. Studies continue into the benefits here of taking supplements.
It should be noted that fish oil supplements are not suitable for everyone, particularly so pregnant women, where they could possibly be harmful.
Do dietary supplements help in body building?
Research shows that the best body shape results will come if you strength train, are active on a regular basis, focus on fat loss and have a diet rich in vital vitamins, minerals and nutrients.
So, do protein supplements, which are largely marketed to promote body muscle growth and a “lean” physique actually work?
As with weight-loss supplements a huge industry has gown around this lifestyle trend. You can tell it’s a trend when not only are specialist shops springing up selling the product, but you can buy it in most large supermarkets too!
Most protein supplements are sold as powders, which are then mixed with water or milk to create a shake, but there are also a range of protein bars and assorted pills available too. Protein powders are made from whey protein, which is a by-product of cheese-making. It is this by-product that is sold and is said to contain high levels of essential amino acids, the compounds that form protein.
I wrote all about Protein previously here. Protein is the key component for use in tissue growth and repair. We need a certain amount of protein to stay healthy (UK average recommended daily amount is 55.5g for men and 45g for women) but most of us actually eat more than this anyway.
Protein can be found in protein-rich foods in a more “natural” state such as meat, poultry, eggs, daily, beans and tofu. We get sufficient protein from eating from these food groups, although a certain amount of serious athletes, may need more.
Claims that protein supplements improve muscle mass and strength for athletes and others are largely unfounded. This again, is an area of continuing research. Too much protein, and in particular for those under 18 and pregnant women should be avoided. Indeed some research on protein powders in the U.S. actually found some of the drinks contained poisonous heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury as well as unnecessary levels of sugar and sweeteners.
Given the risks and lack of evidence here, again it might seem prudent to avoid these products and rely on a good varied healthy diet containing plenty of “real” lean protein, like chicken or beans and pulses.
What dietary supplements do I take?
I’m a big believer in that you should be able to get the necessary vital nutritional elements our bodies need from a sensible healthy diet. I personally don’t take any dietary supplements except for flax seeds, which I put 1tbsp. into my porridge daily, to aid my digestion.
My addition of this dietary supplement was recommended to me by my GP, when I went a number of years ago complaining of stomach cramps and constipation. I’m happy that this addition to my diet, as well as ensuring I am constantly drinking lots of water (I drink about 3L per day), has helped in curing my issues.
I’ve tried to provide an unbiased article regarding dietary supplements here, but I found that the overwhelming evidence points to lack of substance and far more testing on the so called “benefits” being required. That’s not in any way to say that there aren’t some supplements that do actually work, nor that all are harmful (I’m not looking to be sued here!).
The main point is that if we are uncertain about taking a particular supplement or we need particular advice for an ailment, we should always seek professional advice from a GP first. Many illnesses or health issues can be avoided by having a reasonably healthy diet, and an active lifestyle. Personally I wouldn’t want to risk my health on a product that wasn’t proven to work and/or medically recommended to me.
But life is full of your own choices that you can make.
*It’s interesting that whilst I was putting together this article, this news item was reported. Those of you who follow my blog will know of this constant lack of sunshine, but abundance of rain in my country (Scotland). Perhaps it’s not just diet that may be a contributing factor to the future recommendation by experts of supplements that we should be taking, but also the weather? 🙂