When you walk into any chemist or health food shop, you’re faced with a head-spinning array of nutritional supplements. Then you go online and the choice becomes mind-blowing! Nutritional supplements is a big, growing business sector but is it just hype to get us to part with money?
Nutritional supplements usually contain micronutrients, phytochemicals or adaptogens – sometimes alone and sometimes in combination. You’re probably familiar with the term micronutrients. These are essential vitamins and minerals that work together with macronutrients (i.e. carbs, protein, fat, fibre and water) to perform hundreds of roles in your body that are necessary to sustain life. Phyto-nutrients are natural compounds found in plants that are thought to promote human health. Adaptogens are bio-plant actives, such as roots, mushrooms and herbs, grown in extreme conditions in which they adapt to survive. They’ve been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine and are said to increase our bodies’ ability to counteract the damaging effects of stress and bring the body back into balance. To read more about adaptogens, click here.
Why can’t we just rely on our food for nutrients?
The starting point for good nutrition should always be a healthy lifestyle and a balanced diet. Micronutrients, phytonutrients and adaptogens are usually found in the foods we eat. Indeed, our diets should be the main source of nutrients that our bodies need. However, it’s getting harder to get all of these nutrients from diet alone.
Why is this?
Most of us buy our food from supermarkets and the reality is that the food we get today is not as fresh and nutritious as it once used to be. Modern farming practices, including the use of pesticides, soil depletion and the long distances that fresh produce travels, mean the bioavailability of key nutrients is significantly reduced.
“Fruits and vegetables grown decades ago were much richer in vitamins and minerals than the varieties most of us get today. The main culprit in this disturbing nutritional trend is soil depletion: Modern intensive agricultural methods have stripped increasing amounts of nutrients from the soil in which the food we eat grows. Sadly, each successive generation of fast-growing, pest-resistant carrot is truly less good for you than the one before.” Scientific American magazine, April 2011 (click here for the full article).
Many processed foods have micronutrients added to them (e.g. vitamin D is added to certain breakfast cereals). Have a look at some of the items in your kitchen cupboards and fridge and see which ones have added nutrients. So it’s not all doom and gloom when you shop from the supermarket.
When you add the stress of our busy modern lives, our bodies can feel like they are under constant pressure to stay healthy. We need those nutrients more than ever!
Who should take supplements?
Many people choose to take supplements in order to boost the nutrients going into their bodies. It is for you to decide whether you want to take a nutritional supplement. The starting point for good nutrition should always be a healthy lifestyle and a balanced diet. Supplements are intended to be just that – a supplement to a good diet and healthy lifestyle.
If you have cut out certain foods for health, ethical or religious reasons, taking a supplement is one way of ensuring that your micronutrient needs are met. Vegetarians and vegans can struggle to get enough B vitamins and iron from food. Those who avoid wheat may be lacking in certain B vitamins and cutting out dairy can lead to calcium deficiency. Supplements can help ensure that those micronutrient needs are met. It’s not to say that if you fall into one of these categories, you can’t get the micronutrients that you need from your diet – it’s just a bit more challenging.
Certain groups of people are advised by the Government to take supplements. Pregnant women are advised to take folic acid for the first 12 weeks of their pregnancy and also in the pre-conception period. Vitamin D deficiency is common in countries like the UK where we do not get much sun during the winter months. As such, the NHS currently advises that all people over the age of 5 (including pregnant and breastfeeding women) consider taking a vitamin D supplement of 10mcg during the winter months.
Things to be aware of…
It’s important to stress that micronutrients do not work alone. All nutrients participate in complex metabolic processes in our body and interact with other nutrients either by enhancing or opposing their action. For example, iron requires vitamin C in order to be absorbed by the body. Vitamins A, D, E and K are fat soluble vitamins. So these vitamins require dietary fat in order to be absorbed. Vitamin B6 requires zinc and magnesium to produce the necessary enzyme conversion. The interaction between nutrients is an amazingly complex thing. You don’t need to understand it all, but it just reinforces the message that the starting point for good nutrition is the food you eat. It’s always worth doing research and taking professional advice if necessary before deciding to take a supplement of a single micronutrient. The NHS website is a good place to start.
It’s also important to seek medical advice – or at least do some research – before taking a supplement if you’re on medication because of the potential for harmful interactions between conventional medicines and herbal and dietary supplements.
Personally, I think supplements can be beneficial for most people (subject to the caveats above), especially those feeling low in energy. I take a high quality multivitamin, antioxidant and fish oil supplement every day. Because I don’t eat meat, I also take an iron oral spray. Recently I’ve started taking an adaptogenic tincture which helps keep me calm and feeling balanced. It’s like my daily shot of zen! For me, supplements act like a nutritional insurance policy. I know that my nutritional needs are being met even on days when I don’t manage 5 plus servings a day of vegetables.
If you do decide to invest in supplements, make sure you do your research and be careful what you buy, as quality can vary enormously.
And remember that supplements are intended to be just that – a supplement to a good diet and healthy lifestyle.