To Supplement or Not to Supplement?

Supplements are a hotly debated subject amongst the nutrition community – can supplements entirely make up for a poor diet? Should we all be on a regular supplement regime? How much is too much, and can you overdo it?

Supplements as a category is vast, ranging from essential vitamins and minerals that we know our body needs on a daily basis to things like antioxidants, which we know can be beneficial, to herbs, spices and sometimes completely made-up supplements with no scientific backing.

Can supplements make up for a poor diet?

The short answer is no. While taking something such as a multivitamin will indeed prevent you from becoming deficient in a vitamin or mineral if you are not eating enough fruits, vegetables and quality foods, it will not make up for everything. Fresh fruits and vegetables are a great source of fibre which you will not get from a multivitamin, they are also full of non-essential nutrients such as carotenoids, flavonoids and antioxidants which give an added benefit.

Additionally, a multivitamin alongside a poor diet will prevent these deficiencies, but it will not protect you from feeling the effects of a bad diet. Eating foods full of saturated fat, sugar and refined carbohydrates causes inflammation and can cause things like plaque to build up in your arteries. So our best source of nutrients is a fresh, healthy diet and if you are eating plenty of nutritious food, you won’t need a multivitamin.


Are there some people who do need supplements?


People who have a diagnosed deficiency: If you are found to be deficient in something such as iron, then a specific iron supplement will likely be essential, alongside including more sources of that nutrient in your diet.


Vegetarians and vegans: These are two groups of people who are more susceptible to deficiencies because of the elimination of animal products which offer some important vitamins and minerals. Vitamin B12, zinc, iron, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids are all things that can be in short supply on a vegan or vegetarian diet. A carefully-planned diet can cover a lot of these things, but considering supplements may be a good idea, particularly B12 and omega-3s.


Vitamin D: In the UK, it is recommended that everyone takes a vitamin D supplement during the months of September-April as the sun is too weak for us to make any vitamin D and so many of us become deficient. The good news is, the sun is now strong enough here that we don’t need to worry about this until September!!


Pregnant Women: This may be obvious, but a prenatal supplement is vital to ensure that mother and baby are getting everything that they need for a healthy pregnancy.


What about the non-essential supplements?

This is where the grey and potentially dangerous area comes in to play. There are MANY supplements on the market that claim to be a cure for this or a way to eliminate that and are completely unproven and sometimes dangerous. So just be wary of supplements that make sweeping, wonderous claims as it often can be a hoax and a complete waste of money. Another issue is that different nutrients and supplements can interact. While sometimes this just may prevent you from absorbing one of them, interactions can be very dangerous, and this is the issue with some of the newer supplements – you don’t know what you are going to get! This isn’t to say that there aren’t some useful supplements in this group, there are many compounds that have been shown to have a benefit, you just need to be careful!

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