Should we take supplements or not?

The Supplements Dilemma

For as long as I can remember, has always been a question people ask noting the influence of marketing and advertising about the need to take supplements for every alignment under the sun and the many health specialty stores and supermarkets that sell these over the counter supplements. It’s a huge billion-dollar industry and according to a survey of almost 3,500 adults ages 60 and older published Oct. 1, 2017, in The Journal of Nutrition found that 70% use a daily supplement, 54% take one or two supplements, and 29% take four or more. (Harvard Health Publishing; 2018)

This makes us question if these supplements are really benefiting us, or are we taking them only to make ourselves feel better or healthier. There is a lot of marketing hype and advertising about the need to take supplements and companies producing these supplements are in it for the profits always looking for the magic formula to lure in customers.

In my opinion we should be getting all our vitamins and minerals from the food we eat before we think of taking a supplement as the meaning of the word “supplement” based on Google Dictionary is “a thing added to something else in order to complete or enhance it” meaning that it’s not necessary if we are already eating a healthy, varied well-balanced diet full of fruits and vegetables.

The Food Dilemma

There is another dilemma which is does the food we eat, have enough of the vitamins and minerals that our body needs. The quality of food we eat is not the same as it used to be and the nutritional value of many foods such as fruits and vegetables has declined and this is due to soil depletion. Modern intensive agricultural methods have stripped increasing amounts of nutrients from the soil in which the food we eat grows. (Scientific American; 2011)

A Landmark study was done on US nutritional data from both 1950 and 1999 for 43 different vegetables and fruits, finding “reliable declines” in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C over the past half century. This declining nutritional content was to the preponderance of agricultural practices designed to improve traits (size, growth rate, pest resistance) other than nutrition. A similar study of British nutrient data from 1930 to 1980, published in the British Food Journal, found that in 20 vegetables the average calcium content had declined 19 percent; iron 22 percent; and potassium 14 percent. Yet another study concluded that one would have to eat eight oranges today to derive the same amount of Vitamin A as our grandparents would have gotten from one. (Scientific American; 2011)

The key to healthier produce is healthier soil. Alternating fields between growing seasons to give land time to restore would be one important step. Also, foregoing pesticides and fertilizers in favor of organic growing methods is good for the soil, the produce and its consumers. Those who want to get the most nutritious fruits and vegetables should buy regularly from local organic farmers. (Scientific American; 2011)

Moreover, nutritionists recommend food first because foods provide a variety of vitamins and minerals and also dietary factors that are not found in a vitamin or mineral supplement. Foods provide many bio active compounds and dietary fiber that typically aren’t found in supplements. And some supplements don’t allow for full absorption of vitamins. Moreover, vitamin or mineral supplements aren’t a substitute for a balanced, nutritious diet that limits excess calories, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and dietary cholesterol. (American Heart Association; 2014)

The need for supplements comes in when we don’t have access to local organic produce or good sources of quality food and for people with specific health conditions like being lactose intolerant or food intolerance (Mayo Clinic; 2017). In my opinion, before taking supplements we should do the required blood tests to detect if there is a deficiency and take supplement prescribed by a physician. We should not be taking supplements on our own due to the fact that we might not need it, it might interact with other medications we are taking, have side effects or we might take more than the daily recommended dose making it toxic for our body.

Vitamin and mineral supplements may also do more harm than good. According to the Mayo Clinic, research suggests that taking vitamin E supplements may raise our risk of heart failure and premature death. The Mayo Clinic also warns that taking more than 200 milligrams of vitamin B-6 per day may cause nerve pain and seizures. Recent research reported by the National Institutes of Health also suggests that too much vitamin A may be bad for our bones. (Healthline; 2017)

There are cases were supplements are required like patients with heart disease and elevated triglycerides should consume omega-3 fatty acids called EPA + DHA, ideally come from fish but it can be hard to get by diet alone, so a supplement could be needed. (American Heart Association; 2014)

Calcium supplements for older women are recommended to reduce the risk of osteoporosis. Vitamin D is needed to absorb and utilize calcium and if aren’t getting enough from the sun then a supplement is recommended. Most calcium supplements include vitamin D. Folic acid supplements are recommended for pregnant women to prevent birth defects. An age-related eye disease study showed that a combination of antioxidants and zinc taken as a dietary supplement reduced the risk of advanced age-related macular degeneration. Probiotics found in yogurt and fermented foods are also found as dietary supplements and may be beneficial for people with irritable bowel syndrome and diarrhoea. (VerywellFit; 2019) Vegan or vegetarians are prone to vitamin B-12 deficiency because most food sources are animal-based like meat, poultry, fish, and eggs. (Healthline; 2019)

Conclusion

The message here is that supplements prescribed by a doctor are helpful for people with certain medical issues. Otherwise, it’s best to get our vitamins and minerals from food and not a pill.

Some people take supplements to counter against poor eating habits and this might increase their risk of health problems. For some people, taking a dietary supplement may be beneficial. If we are in good general health, there’s limited research evidence to suggest that taking vitamin and mineral supplements will make us healthier and it is suggested that certain supplements can be harmful.

We need to always talk to our physician before adding a vitamin or mineral supplement to our diet. If we are taking supplements instead of eating fruits, vegetables, and other nutrient-rich foods, it’s time to rethink our strategy and remember that there’s no substitute for a healthy diet.

“Pills are not a shortcut to better health and the prevention of chronic diseases,” says Larry Appel, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Welch Centre for Prevention, Epidemiology and Clinical Research.

References

Harvard Health Publishing. Do you need a daily supplement? (2018). https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/do-you-need-a-daily-supplement

Scientific American. Dirt Poor: Have Fruits and Vegetables Become Less Nutritious? (2011). https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/soil-depletion-and-nutrition-loss/

American Heart Association. Vitamin Supplements: Hype or Help for Healthy Eating. (2014). https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/vitamin-supplements-hype-or-help-for-healthy-eating

VerywellFit. Are Supplements Really Necessary for Good Health? (2019). https://www.verywellfit.com/do-you-need-to-take-vitamins-2507776

Healthline. Do You Need to Take Vitamins? (2017). https://www.healthline.com/health/do-you-need-take-vitamins

Healthline. According to Nutritionists, These Are the 7 Ingredients Your Multivitamin Should Have. (2019). https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/best-vitamins-to-take-daily

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Vitamins, Minerals and Supplements: Do You Need to Take Them? (2018). https://www.eatright.org/food/vitamins-and-supplements/dietary-supplements/vitamins-minerals-and-supplements-do-you-need-to-take-them

John Hopkins Medicine. Is There Really Any Benefit to Multivitamins? (2019). https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/is-there-really-any-benefit-to-multivitamins

Mayo Clinic. Supplements: Nutrition in a pill? (2017). https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/supplements/art-20044894

Harvard Health Publishing. Getting your vitamins and minerals through diet. (2018). https://www.health.harvard.edu/womens-health/getting-your-vitamins-and-minerals-through-diet

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