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Supplements and vitamins – separating fact from fiction

15 May 2019

Woman taking vitamin

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First of all, what is a supplement?

A supplement is essentially any pill, capsule, tablet, liquid or powder that contains vitamins, minerals, herbs or amino acids that helps with dietary intake of said substances.

When are they important?

Though most people get their recommended dietary intakes (RDIs) through a moderated, balanced diet, some people may require supplements to help them meet these targets.

They include:

  • Pregnant women – folic acid supplements are recommended for women who are planning to conceive, or are pregnant, while iodine supplements are recommended throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding. Some women may also benefit from iron supplementation during this period.
  • Menstruating women – heavy periods mean some women struggle to reach the RDI for iron.
  • Those who avoid dairy – allergies, intolerances and lifestyle choices can all mean dairy, the biggest source of calcium, is off the menu, so supplements may be required to meet nutritional needs. If you do choose a supplement, look for a tablet with added vitamin D, which aids absorption.
  • Vegans – skipping animal products means that vegans may miss key nutrients, such as protein, zinc, vitamin B12 and iron.
  • Elderly – as we age, our ability to absorb certain nutrients declines. Vitamins B12 and D, along with calcium are often areas that are lacking in this population.
  • Individuals with malabsorption problems – individuals with coeliac or Crohn’s diseases, for example, may require supplements.

Anyone that falls into one of the categories above should discuss their requirements with your health professional. Healthy adults, however, should be able to meet their nutritional needs by consuming a varied diet containing the right amount of nutrient-dense foods.

Unfortunately, not all supplements are what they’re made out to be. So before buying into any false advertising here are a few things to be wary of.

Don’t believe everything you read

“Boosts muscle growth”, “Supports you during stress”, “Keeps joints healthy”, “Improves sleep” - We’ve all seen claims like these, but are they actually have any scientific evidence? It might sound obvious but if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Although the law in New Zealand states that manufacturers cannot label products with false or misleading statements relating to the effects or ingredients of the supplement, the validity of product claims is not often substantiated before they go to market.

Multivitamins, for example, are often promoted to boost longevity and wellbeing, however, a large body of evidence suggests that they have no effect on longevity or preventing premature death, cancer, heart attack or stroke.

Echinacea and vitamin C are widely touted as weapons against colds, despite studies finding they are ineffective at prevention (although conflicting results show they may help reduce the duration of a cold).

And despite what the marketers tell you, you probably don’t need a shake, bar or pill, to reach your protein requirements. 98 per cent of New Zealanders get enough protein through their everyday diets , without dropping a dime on supplements.

Perhaps the most concerning finding is that antioxidant supplements have been found to increase the risk of death, despite labels often promoting anti-cancer benefits, among others.

So make sure you always consult a medical professional for advice on supplements, rather than relying on false claims from potentially untrustworthy manufacturers.

They can’t take the place of a good diet

What’s the real miracle pill for good health? A balanced diet.

While supplements offer nutrients, whole foods also provide fibre, energy, water, phytonutrients and satiety, which together, help protect against chronic disease.

What’s more, a healthy, balanced diet generally provides the body with the vitamins and minerals it needs in the right quantities.

What if you don’t eat a healthy diet, you may ask? Most experts agree that a multivitamin is a bad ‘insurance’ policy against a poor diet, as many contain nutrients at levels far below the RDI, and are lacking the other beneficial compounds that real food provides.

If you think your diet may be lacking in nutrients, it’s best to start by improving your eating habits, and consulting an appropriate health professional for advice.

You can have too much of a good thing

Vitamins and minerals play important roles in keeping the body healthy, but it’s important to remember more is not always best. Not only will unnecessary supplements cost you unnecessary money, taking large doses of individual nutrients can sometimes be dangerous.

Take vitamin A, for example. It’s a fat-soluble vitamin, meaning it can build up in the body. Consequences of too much vitamin A include headaches, compromised liver function, birth defects for pregnant women , and even increased risk of lung cancer in smokers .

You can overdo minerals too; excess iron can cause nausea and vomiting.

That said, while high dose supplements should not be taken unless directed under medical advice, a general multivitamin is unlikely to cause adverse effects.

Not all supplements work together

Combining multiple supplements, or supplements and prescribed medications, can lead to nasty side effects.

Ginkgo biloba, for example, can have dangerous effects in individuals taking antidepressant, anticonvulsant, antiviral and blood-thinning medications (e.g. warfarin).

So, are supplements for me?

Before purchasing a supplement, ask yourself: Do I really need this?

Better still, have a chat with your GP about your individual nutrient requirements.

For most individuals, however, it’s best to get the nutrients our bodies need by eating a balanced diet filled with nutrient-dense foods, such as fruit, vegetables, dairy (mostly reduced-fat), lean meats, fish and wholegrains, rather than taking supplements.

But ultimately, the decision to take a supplement, or not, is yours. Be sure to make an informed decision and discuss your intentions with a medical professional prior to consumption. Not only will health practitioners be able to recommend appropriate supplements (if any) for your needs, they’ll likely be aware of any potentially dangerous interactions.

Important things to know

Information correct as at May 2019