Are multi vitamins - and other supplements - a necessary part of modern life?
Posted on 16th March 2016 at 07:45
Supplements are big business these days. It’s estimated that here in the UK £750 million is spent on them each year. And the market is growing each year.
However from conversations with clients it’s clear there’s still a huge amount of confusion about them. It’s a subject we’ve touched on before in this blog but one well worth revisiting. So here we go.
Do we really need to take supplements at all?
This is a question guaranteed to polarise people into two opposing camps.
One side is adamant that you can get all the nutrition you need from your food and supplements are completely unnecessary. Not to mention a waste of money.
The other is equally certain that you don’t and supplements are a necessary fact of life.
As usual, our answer is somewhere in between.
Yes, in an ideal world, the food we eat would provide all the resources our bodies needed. Sadly this is not now the case, with modern farming methods having led to a decline in the nutritional value of food.
However, having said this, we would ALWAYS recommend that you seek to maximise the nutritional value of your diet BEFORE considering taking a supplement. We’re sure by now you know what we’re going to say, but we’ll say it again anyway (!).
This means a wholefood diet avoiding processed foods. Becoming much more aware of HOW the food you buy is produced, particularly animal products.
Looking for fruit and vegetables that are grown organically or with minimum pesticide use. Even better growing some yourself.
If you think you don’t have the time – or space – how about a sprouter on your kitchen windowsill? Or salad leaves in a planter on the patio? You really don’t need acres of space to grow a few things at home. Not only will it taste better, but you’ll get an immense amount of satisfaction from doing it as well.
The bottom line is that supplements should NEVER be seen as a substitute for a healthy diet. Always treat any supplement as a “top up” – an insurance policy if you prefer – AFTER you’ve done everything you can to improve your diet.
What about single supplements?
If we take a quick look at the food our bodies are designed to eat, no food ever contains just one mineral or vitamin. While particular foods may be high in particular nutrients, they always contain others as well.
Take, for example, a carrot. While it may be high in beta carotene – used by the body to manufacture Vitamin A – it also contains high levels of Vitamin C, as well as another 200 or so other enzymes, minerals and phytonutrients. We’ll probably never know how all these substances interact with each other, but they all play a part in ensuring that the full nutritional value of the carrot can be utilised by the body. If we were to just take beta carotene in isolation, it must then follow that its absorption and use would be affected.
Some of these interdependencies are well known. Others less so. The important thing to remember is that, in nature, no nutrient would ever be consumed on its own. This means that unless all the necessary nutrients are taken together, then the body won’t then be able to fully absorb them. And the full benefit of taking that particular supplement is lost. More worryingly it can also lead to some quite unintended results.
Let’s take a well known supplement, Calcium, to illustrate how problems can occur. Calcium is known to help strengthen bones and teeth. However it needs a number of other vitamins and minerals – Vitamins D3 and K2, as well as phosphorus, magnesium and other trace elements – for the body to be able to fully absorb and use it. Keeping it simple, Vitamin D is needed to help the body absorb the Calcium; while Vitamin K acts as a signpost, sending it where it’s needed. The minerals are used to manufacture the bone itself.
It’s not difficult to see how the whole process can go awry if any of these building blocks are missing. And, sadly, many off the shelf high potency Calcium supplements don’t contain the full spectrum of vitamins and minerals alongside the Calcium.
So what does this mean in practice? Well, for example, a lack of Vitamin K2 can result in Calcium being deposited in places other than the bones, such as the arteries. A lack of the necessary minerals results in them being removed from the bones, as they are needed by the body to be able to process the Calcium, ironically leading to a weakening of the bones.
We regularly see clients who are taking one – or more (!) – single supplements, often after reading an article extolling their virtues. Self prescribing is always fraught with danger and it’s easy to see how unintended results can occur. This is why it’s important to take the time to do a little research FIRST and seeing what dietary changes can be made BEFORE considering supplements.
Does it matter where you buy supplements from?
In one word “yes.”
Sadly many of the cheaper off the shelf products are poor quality; filled with additives, colours and fillers.
Added to this many of the vitamins and minerals they contain are manufactured in a factory and so entirely synthetic. If you just stop to think about it for a moment, our bodies are designed to extract all the nutrients we need from food. In other words from plant and animal material. NOT from synthetic substances manufactured in a factory. While they may look similar from a chemical point of view, to our bodies they are completely alien and unusable. It’s rather like trying to eat rocks –or soil – and expecting to be able to get the necessary nutrients from them.
Let’s have another look at Calcium which comes in many different forms. Some of these the body finds easy to digest, others it doesn’t.
The cheapest form is Calcium Carbonate – chalk – and the one found in many off the shelf supplements. Sadly, it’s very difficult for the body to break down and so very little is absorbed. This means that you wouldn’t be getting the full benefit from it. And, as we explained earlier, if you’re not taking the necessary minerals and vitamins alongside you could be opening up a pandora’s box of problems.
So what would we advise?
We’ve already stressed the importance of looking at your diet BEFORE considering any supplement.
Once you’ve done this, our advice would always be to do your homework BEFORE going any further.
If you do opt for a supplement always go for a slightly more expensive product from an independent health food shop, made from natural ingredients. And don’t forget to carefully read the label, so helping to ensure that any product you buy can be fully used by the body.
As always, the choice is yours.
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