I get asked about supplements A LOT. It seems in this age of food paranoia we have lost faith in our ability to feed ourselves and so we turn to pills as a kind of nutritional comfort blanket. Indeed, research in US found the average American diet lacking in a number of essential nutrients, including calcium, potassium, magnesium, and vitamins A, C, and D. For those who are time poor or have little interest in cooking it’s no wonder they are reaching for the vitamin bottle. Supplementing is also seen by many as a preventative measure – an insurance policy to boost immunity and ward off disease although the evidence for this is sketchy at best - here's an article from Harvard Health if you are interested to find out more.
The reason for this explosion in supplement taking is due to our increasingly fast-paced lives combined with relentless and often irresponsible marketing; we’ve all seen celebrities being paid to push products (which they most likely don’t even take!) and we're subject to endless scary health headlines in the media. It’s only human in the face of this barrage to jump on the bandwagon for fear of ending up on the health scrapheap.
But there are downsides to supplements which are often conveniently ignored – there is a tendency to think ‘the more the better’ but this is certainly not the case. For example, taking too much magnesium and phosphorous can cause diarrhoea, a surfeit of iron can cause constipation (I can vouch for this as I had to take iron supplements when I was pregnant), excessive zinc can lead to nausea and vomiting and too much selenium can result in brittle hair and nails and tummy upset. Another consideration is interactions between supplements and any other prescribed medications you may be taking.
So, here’s some stuff to think about before you pop those pills:
If you are eating such a poor diet that you feel the need to supplement it's likely your lifestyle is unhealthy in other ways too – eg. smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, lack of exercise etc. It’s time for a rethink.
The benefits of eating a balanced, healthy diet are so great for every aspect of well-being that focusing on improving your diet is a much better approach to your health than taking a handful of pills each day. Supplements may give you a sense of security but you aren’t really getting to the root of the issue.
The body is designed to eat food not supplements! Fruits, vegetables, fish and other healthy foods contain nutrients and other substances not found in a pill, which work together to keep us healthy. You don’t get the same ‘synergistic’ effect from a supplement.
Supplements are expensive! Surely this money would be better spent on buying some lovely seasonal produce or better-quality meat, and far more enjoyable to eat too.
Of course, there are certain specific situations where supplements can be helpful and it would be irresponsible of me not to mention them here, this is based on current advice from the NHS in the UK:
All children aged 6 months to 5 years should take a supplement containing vitamins A, C and D. This is a precaution because growing children may not get enough of these vitamins, especially those not eating a varied diet – for example, fussy eaters
Very strict vegetarians may need supplementary vitamin B12.
You should take folic acid if you are pregnant or breastfeeding
Vitamin D is formed in the body when we are exposed to sunlight, and in the UK many of us are not getting enough, so the elderly and housebound should consider it as well as young children and those pregnant and breastfeeding.
Your GP may also recommend supplements if you need them for a medical condition. For example, iron supplements for anaemia.
Other than these specific scenarios you can get everything you need from what’s on your plate, here’s how*:
Calcium – oily fish where you eat the bones (e.g. sardines, anchovies), milk, yogurt, tofu, broccoli, cabbage
Potassium - bananas, spinach, sweet potatoes, beans, avocados
Magnesium – leafy greens such as spinach, nuts, seeds, brown rice, wholegrain bread
Folic acid - spinach, cabbage, Brussels, lentils, chickpeas, peas, liver (but avoid this during pregnancy)
Iron - shellfish, spinach, red meat, lentils, quinoa, turkey, tofu, dark chocolate min 70% (iron is better absorbed when taken with foods containing vitamin C)
Omega-3 fatty acids – oily fish, flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, soybeans/edamame
Vitamin A - sweet potato, spinach, carrots, cantaloupe melon, tomatoes
Vitamin B6 - chickpeas, salmon, chicken, turkey, sunflower and sesame seeds, bananas, avocado
Vitamin B12- shellfish, red meat, salmon, cod, trout, milk, cheese, eggs, Marmite
Vitamin C – citrus fruit, red and green peppers, strawberries, blackcurrants, broccoli, Brussels, potatoes
Vitamin D – eggs, yogurt, fortified milk, oily fish – such as salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel, red meat
Vitamin E – wheatgerm (found in whole wheat products), almonds, sunflower seeds, peanut butter
*obviously this list is not exhaustive but gives a good idea of the kinds of foods you need to include in your diet.
To summarise, be judicious about your use of supplements. If you are eating an unrestricted, balanced diet it’s highly unlikely that you will be deficient in anything. If you are cutting out foods and food groups you need to be more vigilant and it may be worth consulting a nutrition professional who can advise on adjusting your diet and/or specific supplementation over and above your food intake.
As with all things in pill form, don’t take them unless you need to!
Have a great weekend everyone and look out for my first StealthHealth email newsletter hitting your inboxes tomorrow, including a competition to win a signed copy of my book.