In an ideal world, a balanced diet provides all the nutrients we need. But our crazy obsession with healthy eating has led us to believe supplements are vital for our health. Taking supplements will not correct a poor diet. We get a lot more from foods than just one or two vitamins or minerals; we also get energy, protein, fibre and other natural compounds that can have beneficial effects on our health. It’s the combination of nutrients working together in food that keeps us healthy.
Here are five things you need to know about supplements before you start popping pills:
Supplements do not replace food
Food contains a complex combination of nutrients working together to support our health. In a balanced diet, each food complements another to provide our bodies with the right combination of good stuff. Although supplements contain many of the same nutrients as food, don’t make the mistake of thinking you don’t need to eat your recommended daily intake of fruit and veg because you had a multivitamin in the morning. It’s more effective to get goodness from wholesome fruit and veg, lean meats, fish and low fat dairy.
You can overdo it
Nutrients are good for us, so the more the better, right? Wrong. Our bodies can only tolerate certain levels of some nutrients and excessive doses can lead to toxicity. Keep this in mind if you’re taking a ‘supplement cocktail’ every morning. For instance, fat-soluble vitamin A can accumulate to toxic levels in your body if taken in doses that significantly exceed the recommended daily intake. In the short term, this can cause headaches and dry skin. Looking ahead, it can lead to joint pain and poor bone health.
There can be side effects
Supplements can lead to a variety of side effects – anything from stomach cramps to weight gain. They can also react with other medications. It is well known that increasing levels of vitamin K in your diet can counteract the treatment of blood thinners such as warfarin. It’s really important to let your doctor know about any dietary supplements you’re taking before you start any medical treatment.
Don’t be sucked in by big claims
Many supplement manufacturers market their products by making sketchy health claims based on dubious evidence. This doesn’t mean what they’re saying isn’t true. However, you’re probably buying a product that won’t be of any benefit if you’re already eating a good diet. An example of this is the promotion of glucosamine to improve joint health when the evidence for its true effect is inconclusive. Scientific studies have NOT shown conclusively that glucosamine helps repair or grow new cartilage, or stops cartilage from being further damaged. Glucosamine is often taken with chondroitin, another supplement thought to be effective in treating osteoarthritis OA. Like glucosamine, chondroitin also has conflicting results in studies. (Source: University of Maryland Medical Centre)
Who should take supplements then?
If you’re not sure if you need supplements to boost your diet, talk to your local GP. Here are a few situations when you should consider taking a supplement:
• Your doctor has said you have a deficiency.
• You’re pregnant or trying to be.
• You’re having trouble putting on, or maintaining, your weight.
• You’re following a restrictive diet or cutting out food groups.
• You’re at risk of osteoporosis
• You’re following a vegan diet.
• You have heavy bleeding during menstrual periods.
• You regularly donate blood.
• You have a medical condition that affects your absorption of nutrients.
• You struggle to meet nutrient requirements through diet alone
Some important points to bear in mind
If you are thinking about trying a supplement, here are a couple of important points to bear in mind:
• Do watch out for unreasonable health claims
• If a claim seems too good to be true then it probably is. Look at the bigger picture – if it was true how come everyone in the world isn’t taking it!
• Don’t mix food supplements and medicines. Some food supplements can interact with medicines. So if you are taking any medication, seek advice from your GP
• Don’t take more than the recommended daily dose
• Taking too much of a supplement can be harmful, or even toxic. If the manufacturer recommends just one a day, two are unlikely to be any better for you, and may even be harmful.
Supplements are not the quick fix to improving your health, your weight loss or your fitness. If you are a sports person have a look at the Irish Sports Council and read their take on taking any type of supplement and you will see they say exactly the same as I do. Also remember an important point – do not take a supplement just because a friend or team mate or a competitor is taking it or recommends it.
Please stick to a healthy lifestyle, for your health’s sake and also to save yourself from wasting money!
For more information on food supplements, check out the following resources:
Irish Nutrition & Dietetic Institute
The Nutrition Society
In the news papers & magazines in recent weeks you may have seen pieces about vitamins and why most people don’t need to take them. (Just as I had written in the blog) This also relates to the touchy subject of Aspartame – you have probably all heard of various different illnesses that Aspartame can cause and you’ve probably been told that Diet Coke will kill you because if contains Aspartame – Complaints of various health issues have circulated since aspartame first appeared on the market in the 1980s. But for most people, no health problems have clearly been linked to aspartame use.
Phenylketonuria is a rare genetic disorder (present at birth) in which the body can’t break down phenylalanine, an amino acid found in many foods. Levels of phenylalanine can build up in the blood, which prevents other important chemicals from getting to the brain. Unless phenylalanine intake is severely limited, children with PKU suffer from abnormal brain development. Because phenylalanine is a component of aspartame, it’s important that people with PKU limit their intake of aspartame-containing foods and drinks.
The ADI for aspartame is at 50 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg) of body weight in the USA and in the European Union, the European Food Safety Authority has recommended a slightly lower ADI for aspartame, at 40 mg/kg.
To put the ADI for aspartame in perspective, this would be 3,750 milligrams per day for a typical adult weighing 75 kilograms (about 165 pounds), far more than most adults take in daily. A can of Diet Coke usually contains about 180 milligrams of aspartame, so a typical adult would have to drink about 21 cans of Diet Coke a day to go over the recommended level.
So just like I tell my members – “everything in moderation”
NOW THE LATEST NEWS: The European Food Safety Authority has recently completed its long study of Aspartame and has found that the artificial sweetener aspartame is SAFE for people to consume at the levels currently used in diet soft drinks. After conducting a major review of the evidence, the agency said it has ruled out any potential risk of aspartame causing damage to genes and inducing cancer.
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