Updated: Mar 15
Millions of people take supplements everyday and believe that they will make them stronger and healthier. The adverts for supplements never promise that they will make you feel better, they can't make promises as they're not allowed, but they do give a list of positive things that they "may" do for you. With so little evidence that they do anything at all do we really need to take them?
What are dietary supplements?
Dietary or nutritional supplements include any consumed or eaten products that aim to supplement the diet and provide additional nutrients that may be missing from it, or aren’t being consumed in a large enough amount. Today’s supplements contain not just vitamins and minerals, but herbs, amino acids, enzymes, fibre and fatty acids. They also come in different forms such as traditional tablets, capsules, powders, drinks and supplement bars. They are really easy to buy and can be found in supermarkets, pharmacies, health food shops and, of course, on the internet. Supplements are usually classified as foods rather than medicines and this means that they don’t have to go through the usual checks that a medicine would go through for safety and to test how well it works before being put in the shops. However, they are covered by the Food Safety Act and should not be harmful to anyone's health. Some supplements are classified and controlled as medicines because of what they are meant to do and how they are used.
Who takes supplements and why?
People take supplements for all kinds of reasons, usually relating to their health. They hope these tablets or powders will give them more energy, make them look younger and live longer and stop them from getting sick. In 2009 people were spending more than £670 million on supplements and vitamins in the UK alone. However, the huge range of dietary supplements available and the conflicting messages from the media may leave some people confused about whether they need supplements or not and a lot of people will take them to "be on the safe side".
Multivitamins are taken by a huge number of people because they believe that they have beneficial effects. However, experts had a look at whether or not vitamin supplements helped people with heart disease and they found that they didn't do anything. But, does that mean that all vitamin supplements are a waste of time? There isn't a straightforward yes or no answer to this question because of the range of products available and because each person's situation will govern whether they would benefit from using a particular supplement. For example, even with popular, well-known products such as multivitamins things are not as clear-cut as you might imagine. There are, of course, certain vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that are essential for keeping the body functioning, but experts agree that most people can get enough of these nutrients from eating a balanced diet and, in the case of vitamin D, from getting enough sunlight.
On the other hand, there is good evidence that certain vitamin supplements may be beneficial to the health of certain groups of people, such as the elderly, pregnant women and children between six months and five years old, the NHS gives good guidance on this. There are also groups of people that have trouble absorbing nutrients from their food and supplements can help to top up their levels, but without knowing what your levels are it is very hard to say that you do need additional amount of vitamins or minerals that you aren't already getting or can't simply get from altering your diet.
If you are concerned about being deficient in nutrients you can go to your doctor and get blood tests done that will look at what your body has absorbed from your food. This will let you know if you do really need to supplement. A lot of people supplement with vitamin c because they think it will stop them from getting a cold, but it's not that simple. It's not the vitamin that fights the cold, it's your body's white blood cells, and, besides, if you eat just one orange a day you get 100% of your vitamin c and broccoli has even more vitamin c than an orange, and this is just one example.
Have a think about your diet, do you think that you are getting everything that you need and, if not, what can you do to change that?