Dietary supplements are no longer only found in “specialist” health food stores and are widely available in any large grocery store, pharmacies as well as online.
We constantly receive conflicting messages from the media on a day to day basis as to whether or not we should be taking dietary supplements. Due to these conflicting messages we constantly find ourselves asking these common questions:
“Should we be taking dietary supplements?”
“What supplements are the best ones?”
“What evidence is present that taking supplements are beneficial for us?”
The topic of dietary supplement is a large topic which is subject to various types of discussion. I have focused on what I believe to be the main points of this subject and have summarised them in the following sections, in order to keep the discussion as concise as possible.
I provide this information, like I do with 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.
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. These examples however should not to be considered as a substitute for food.
What are dietary supplements taken for?
The most common reasons for taking dietary supplements are mostly to address health and body related issues. The following points are sourced from “Targets of supplement use (%age of 2009 retail value) Vitamins and dietary supplements in the UK, Euro monitor International 2010 and include the following:-
- Improving and maintaining overall health
- Joint related issues
- Heart related issues
- Immune system related issues
- Bone related issues
- Digestive related issues
- Eye related issues
- Memory related issues
What types of dietary supplements are consumed?
Information taken from the same survey above also lists the most common supplements taken, which includes:-
- Protein Powder
- Single vitamins A, B, C, D and E
- Probiotic supplements
- Herbal / traditional eye supplements
- Calcium and other mineral supplements
- Fish oils
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 supplements to 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.
Should you be taking dietary supplements?
Taking dietary supplements 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 made by manufacturers in regards to benefits of supplements.
Manufacturers make different kinds of claims to promote the so called “health benefits” of their products. If a manufacturer claims that their supplement cures or treats a condition, they are required to prove that under UK legal regulation.
Manufacturers also make claims that their products “maintain” a bodily function; this is regulated under UK food laws. Laws in the United Kingdom also allow Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to take action against false or misleading claims, and ask manufacturers to remove such claims from their products.
Whilst in the UK, there are steps that authorities and individuals can take to limit the false claims on some supplements; it is more difficult to “police” the Internet, which can be presented as an issue for the industry. People are able to use popular search engines to search for more or less anything supplements wise. Results may lead to consumers finding and potentially purchasing supplements. It may be somewhat beneficial for consumers however these supplements may originate from outside the UK and are not subject to UK legislation. These supplements can more or less claim any health benefits which may be to the detriment of the consumer.
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.
Essentially, our bodies only need 13 vitamins to maintain healthiness which include the vitamins A, C, D, E, K and the eight B vitamins. Each of these vitamins has specific functions in the body.
But why are we buying so many vitamin supplements? It’s because manufacturers heavily promote these products, citing their specific individual benefits, such as vitamin C helping to keep a person’s cells healthy or vitamin A being good for eyesight and maintaining healthy skin. It is 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. There is only a certain need for minute amounts of these vitamins. In actual fact people can actually get enough vitamins by eating a balanced and varied diet.
The UK NHS (National Health Service) guidelines specify people 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?
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.
In some cases supplements, particularly those sold over the internet could be full of potentially harmful substances. Would you want to risk your health to purchase a supplement where the ingredients are not clearly stated?
Examples of some ingredients found to be included in some dietary supplements include:
- hydroxycitric acid (which causes stomach pain).
- Chitosan (Gastrointestinal symptoms)
- Ginko biloba (headaches, dizziness, bleeding, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, heart palpitations and restlessness).
Rather than turning to weight-loss supplements, your GP is the first person from who you should seek advice. In the UK, a visit to the GP is free through the NHS, who can refer any individual to further specialist health professionals. These specialist health professionals will help you achieve your weight loss goals through a balanced diet and provide ways to increase your activity levels.
What about Fish Oils?
There is a great deal of emphasis placed upon eating more oily fish in our diets today, such as mackerel and herring. These fish (and some plants) contain Omega-3 fatty acids, which is 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.
Manufacturers and the media also 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 is recommended, one of which is an oily fish (such as mackerel or herring). However it is once again important to note that it is through a good diet that our bodies can get an adequate source of Omega-3, not through supplements. Studies are still ongoing regarding the benefits of taking supplements.
It should also be noted that fish oil supplements are not suitable for everyone, particularly for pregnant women, as 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.
In line with research questions are raised as to whether 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 grown around this lifestyle trend.
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. As previously stated for other supplements, this is an area of continuing research. Too much protein, and in particular for those under 18 and pregnant women should be avoided.
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 available, 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 have 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 is not in any way to say that there are not some supplements that do actually work, nor that all are harmful.
The main point is that if an individual is 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 has not proven to work and/or medically recommended to me.
But life is full of choices that only 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? 🙂