Do we really need supplements?

Apparently 27 million adults take supplements, so clearly many people feel they are important and effective for improving health. However, the consumption of additional nutrients in the form of supplements is often dismissed as a waste of money by doctors and dieticians (as opposed to Nutritional Therapists) who claim they just make expensive urine. They often insist that food alone will supply all we require for good health.

Unfortunately, whilst consumption of healthy, nutrient rich food is, of course, a vital requirement for health, there are many incidences where this may not be enough. This could be due to poor diet, chronic disease, stress or genetic requirements. As scientific research has moved forward in the last few decades, so has the understanding of the value of additional nutrients in a dose beyond the minimum required for the avoidance of gross nutrient deficient diseases. The RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) of vitamin C for example, prevents you from getting scurvy, but may not be enough to necessarily keep you in optimum health.


Possibly, provided you are young and have no health issues, but the reality is that many people do not consume the recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables and our inclination to eat processed food and a lot of sugar means that we need an even better supply of vitamins and minerals to help the body process this type of food. Perhaps even more crucially, research indicates a declining nutrient content in produce in this country. Fruit and vegetables have at least 20% less minerals than in the 1930’s and milk has 60% less.

Many foods grown in the UK tend to deliver a less than optimum level of zinc and selenium (both minerals are important for the immune system), while magnesium intakes are being reduced through both processing and less than ideal food choices. Other trace minerals may also be affected. In fact, it can be hard to know exactly what we are getting in the way of minerals, as the Governments own documented nutrient levels for each vegetable are an average taken from across a broad spectrum of the country. Mineral content will inevitably vary depending on how and where the food is grown.


In the past, people didn’t use supermarkets but smaller specialist shops, eg. the butchers, greengrocers, fishmongers etc, where there would have been a strong connection with the local farmers and other food producers, who would traditionally be selling their fresh, seasonal, and therefore nutritionally rich goods in local shops. These days, supermarkets often ship in produce from abroad (usually heavily sprayed if they’re not organic) and then store them for weeks or even months before putting them on sale, leading to an inevitable decline in nutrients.


Many people firmly believe that ‘5 a day’ is enough to deliver the important key nutrients, rather than relying on food supplements. Certainly food should deliver bio-available nutrients, particularly from fresh fruit and vegetables. However, according to supplement company Nutrigold, ‘many people still don’t actually understand what a truly balanced diet is, or what a portion of the suggested five-a-day really is, for the record a portion is calculated to be 80g of fruit or vegetables. Even though most of us know about the Governments suggested Five-A Day, in the UK only 15% of women and 13% of men are reported to achieve this level. This means that the vast majority of people in the UK population are open to possible nutritional deficiencies that can lead to health problems either now or later in life.’


When we boil our vegetables, many important minerals are leached out of the foods and are thrown away in the boiled water. So in reality, unless we are taking great care to eat more than the recommended five a day and ensuring that produce is really fresh, it’s very hard to know what level of nutrient intake we are really consuming. So with this uncertainty about what the true nutrient content of our food is and confusion over what exactly constitutes a portion of fruit or vegetables, are we better off supplementing our diet as some kind of insurance policy against ill health? Quite possibly, but…


Remember a good quality food supplement is exactly that, it’s designed to be a supplement to food, not a substitute for it. Lots of research has been done showing that inadequate intake of nutrients has been linked to chronic diseases, including coronary heart disease, cancer, diabetes and osteoporosis. Interesting statistics reveal that the risk of diabetes was 73% less and the risk for coronary heart disease was 52% less in multiple supplement takers!

The quality of supplements vary enormously, which people are often unaware of and leads them to take the cheapest option which indeed may not be the much better than expensive urine if the body is unable to absorb and utilise them properly. You tend to get what you pay for with supplements and quality really counts.

So good quality supplements are the ones that make a difference to health but also remember that self prescribing anything other than a multi vitamin and mineral supplement is not ideal as you can create nutrient imbalances long term and, if you are on medication, you should definitely never take any supplement without the guidance of a Nutritional Therapist who is trained to apply targeted supplementation that can make a significant difference to a health issue.