Nutritional supplements are products that contain vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals, fatty acids, amino acids or other substances. Supplements come in the form of pills, capsules, powders or liquids. They’re intended to help you get adequate intake of essential nutrients.
Nutritional supplementation is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Companies that sell supplements recommend a variety of their products as necessary for optimal health and disease prevention. Peruse the Internet or visit a health food store and you’re likely to come across statements such as, “If you want to fight disease and achieve maximum lifespan, you can’t do it with diet alone.” Does taking supplements prevent diseases and increase longevity? Do these claims have merit?
Much of the current scientific research indicates that nutritional supplements are not necessary for healthy people. Even with an average western diet that includes processed food, most generally healthy people get adequate nutrition. “There are some that advocate we have many nutritional deficiencies in our diet … The truth is … our diet is completely adequate,” states Dr. Edgar Miller, professor of medicine and epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Based on several studies, including a meta-analysis of 27 studies covering 450,000 participants, Miller believes multivitamins have no benefit in the healthy population. Multivitamins don’t prevent cancer, heart disease or dementia. “There’s really no evidence of benefit, and there is evidence of harm … Don’t waste your money.” http://tinyurl.com/oubtolb
“Vitamins retain an aura of wellness, even as the evidence accumulates that they may not offer any meaningful health benefits,” notes Scott Gavura on the Science-Based Medicine website. http://tinyurl.com/kylz25j
The scientific community does recommend some supplements for specific subpopulations. For example, folic acid is recommended to prevent birth defects for women trying to conceive. This can be achieved via fortified foods or supplementation. Vitamin D is recommended for seniors to reduce the risk of falls and for people in northern countries such as Canada where we have less sunlight. The elderly can benefit from vitamin B12. Other situations where supplementation may be appropriate for healthy adults include people who are not eating enough calories, those who avoid specific dietary groups such as dairy, vegans and vegetarians if they eat from a limited variety of foods, people who eat little or no fish, and women with heavy menstrual periods.
Some personal trainers advise clients to take supplements, such as whey protein, for muscle growth, but it’s outside the scope of practice for personal trainers to recommend or sell nutritional supplements. When clients ask me about supplements, I tell them to check with their doctor or a registered dietician. Supplements can be harmful. They can have side effects. They may not be suitable for you, depending on your health status, and they can interact with your medications. For example, consuming extra protein can actually put strain on your kidneys and cause calcium loss from your body. Unless you’re an extreme athlete, protein needs are typically met with a slight increase in protein in your diet. In 1999, a $320 million lawsuit was filed in the United States after a young woman who had taken natural supplements recommended by her personal trainer died from a stroke when the supplements interacted with her blood pressure medication.
Health Canada recommends eating a balanced diet based on Canada’s Food Guide. The American Heart Association states that, if you’re deficient despite eating a balanced diet, the “key is to ensure [supplements] are taken in addition to healthy diet choices and nutrient-dense foods. They’re supplements, not replacements. Only use supplements if your healthcare professional has recommended them.” www.heart.org
Supplements don’t provide the combination of vitamins, minerals and fibre that a simple piece of fruit does, nor do supplements contain antioxidants and phytochemicals, which occur naturally in whole foods.
If you lack energy due to eating poorly, the answer is not necessarily a supplement. It may be a hard pill to swallow, but supplements won’t undo the damage of living on junk food. A certified dietician can teach you how to improve your eating habits so you get all of the nutrients you require.
Do your research. Learn to discern between pseudo-science and real science. Most importantly, speak with your doctor before taking any supplements.