Nutritional or dietary supplements are widely available, in supermarkets, health food shops and even online, but do we all need to supplement our diets? The supplement market was estimated to be worth £414 million in 2015, but are supplements really doing us any good?
What are supplements?
Dietary supplements contain ingredients such as:
- Amino acids
The major benefits of supplements are they can help us to get the correct amount of these vital nutrients that the body requires to function normally. Supplements are literally just that, they are tablets, caplet, gels, powders or liquids which are used to top-up our diet.
Many people choose to take supplements but taking them for a prolonged period or taking too much can have serious side effects. For example, taking high doses of iron or iron supplements can cause side effects such as:
- Stomach pain
Therefore, it is important to monitor how much of a certain nutrient you are supplementing, particularly if you are acquiring it through your diet, too.
There are some supplements which are recommended to be taken by specific groups of people. The Department of Health recommends:
Folic acid is important, alongside vitamin B12, for producing healthy red blood cells. They also help to keep nerves functioning appropriately. Folic acid is also essential for the formation of DNA, the building blocks of life. For this reason, folic acid is recommended for all pregnant women. All women who are thinking of getting pregnant should take a folic acid supplement. Women who are already pregnant should also take a folic acid supplement up until the 12th week of pregnancy.
The supplementation of folic acid both before and during pregnancy is recommended to prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida. It’s recommended that all women should take 400 micrograms of folic acid every day until the twelfth week of pregnancy.
Natural sources of folic acid include:
- Brussel sprouts
- Yeast and beef extracts
- Fortified foods
Although it is found in green leafy vegetables, folic acid can be lost from vegetables during cooking. The reason for this is it is a water-soluble vitamin, so it dissolves in water. To avoid this, you should avoid overcooking or opt for steaming your vegetables instead of boiling.
There are very few good food sources available which provide adequate vitamin D. Instead, our skin produces vitamin D when the sun’s UV rays are emitted and strike the skin. To become active, it must go through some chemical processes in the body so it can be used to keep our bones strong and healthy.
Because we rely heavily on sunshine to top-up our vitamin D, it is believed that half of the world’s population has vitamin D insufficiency and 1 billion people have a vitamin D deficiency. Inadequate exposure to sunlight is the most common reason for reduced vitamin D levels. Most people will acquire enough vitamin D by being out in the sun for short periods from late March to late September in the UK. However, there are some groups of individuals who may need to supplement, such as:
- Individuals of African, African-Caribbean or South Asian origin. These individuals require longer in the sun to produce the same amount of vitamin D as individuals with lighter skin
- Children aged under 5 should be given a vitamin D supplement even if they spend time in the sun
- People who are frail or housebound
- Those in care homes
In the UK, everyone over the age of 5 is also encouraged to supplement their vitamin D intake with 10 micrograms per day.
Most people won’t need to take supplements to boost their diet because they are able to get all the nutrients, they need by eating a varied, healthy and balanced diet. However, due to the modern lifestyle many of us adopt, not everybody manages to eat a healthy diet all the time. For example, data from the EURRECA project shows an inadequate intake for vitamin C and D as well as folic acid, calcium, selenium and iodine.
The lack of vitamin D throughout the world’s population is of concern, so too is the inadequate intake of iron across Europe in teenage girls. Therefore, it is essential for some population groups to supplement their diet with vitamins and minerals, but we should be sure not to exceed their reference daily intakes (RDIs) to prevent side effects.
The best way for the body to get all of the vital nutrients it needs is to eat a balanced and varied diet. For example, although the body needs vitamins it only needs them in small amounts and eating the right foods should provide them, such as:
- Starchy foods like bread, pasta and potatoes
- Dairy foods
Some vitamins like vitamin D can be made by our body but this requires sunlight and even though there are limited dietary sources, sunlight is the best way to guarantee a good vitamin D status. Therefore, it may be necessary to supplement your intake depending on your location and circumstances.
People choose to take nutritional supplements for a variety of reasons:
- To improve health
- Reduce the risk of chronic disease or illness
- Reduce signs of ageing
- To aid the treatment or prevent the progression of an illness
- To boost vitality
- Boost levels if, for example, you’re vegan or vegetarian
The main reason, however, is to boost our general health and wellbeing. Whether or not you individually need to take supplements is a personal choice which can be influenced by several factors. Before taking new supplements:
- Do your own research
- Speak to a health professional
- Test your levels to find out if you are deficient
If you want to find out more about your own nutritional status our Nutri-check finger prick blood test will measure your body’s key nutrients including, folate (folic acid), active B12, vitamin D, ferritin and much more. You can collect your blood sample easily and conveniently at home using our finger-prick kit and then simply send it to our accredited lab for analysis. Your results will be reviewed by one of our doctors and made available on your online health dashboard within days.
Cawley, S et al. (2015). A Review of European Guidelines on Periconceptional Folic Acid Supplementation. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, pp 1-12.
EUFIC. (2019). Food Supplements: Who Needs Them and When? Available at: https://www.eufic.org/en/healthy-living/article/food-supplements-who-needs-them-and-when [accessed 22 January 2019].
HMFA. (2019). Industry Facts. Available at: https://www.hfma.co.uk/media-events/industry-facts/ [accessed 22 January 2019].
Hodgetts, V, A et al. (2014). Effectiveness of Folic Acid Supplementation in Pregnancy on Reducing the Risk of Small-For-Gestational Age Neonates: A Population Study, Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. BJOG: 122, pp 478-490.
Nair, R and Maseeh, A. (2012). Vitamin D: The “Sunshine” Vitamin. J Pharmacol Pharmacother: 3(2), pp 118-126.