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Supplements are big business these days and much more than the traditional multi vitamins and minerals. Just about every vitamin and mineral is available along with herbal extracts and proprietary formulas for every possible health concern. Here in the UK, it’s estimated that £1.3 billion will be spent on them this year – 2021 – with the market growing every 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 but one well worth revisiting. 
 
The first question which comes up is obvious and guaranteed to polarise people into two opposing – and usually vociferous (!) – camps. 
 
 
Do we really need to take supplements at all? 
 
One side is adamant we can get all the nutrition we need from our food and supplements are completely unnecessary. Not to mention a waste of money. Full stop. End of conversation. 
 
The other is equally certain that we don’t and supplements are a necessary fact of life. In fact, they’re essential for good health. 
As usual, the answer is somewhere in between. 
 
Yes, in an ideal world, the food we eat would provide all the resources our bodies need. Sadly, this is not now the case – and hasn’t been for a while. 
 
In part, it’s down to how our food is produced. In other words, intensive modern farming methods, which have led to a decline in the nutritional value of food. This is well documented, even in the mainstream. Added to this is the ever lengthening food supply chain and the time it takes food to reach the supermarket, let alone our plates. And, finally, much of the lower quality food is then processed to provide ready meals and other pre prepared products for the consumer, all of which cause further nutritional value to be lost. After all, you’re not going to use the best quality – and more expensive foods – to make processed products, where the emphasis is on cost and convenience rather than nutritional value, are you? 
 
However, despite all of this, we would ALWAYS recommend that you do everything you can to maximise the nutritional value of your diet BEFORE considering taking a supplement. We’re sure 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 locally AND, wherever possible, organically or with minimum pesticide use. Even better growing some yourself. 
 
In the warmer months, you’ll find lots of people selling off excess produce which can easily be frozen – and means its nutritional benefits won’t be lost – to eat during the winter months. With the easy availability of food all year round, thinking ahead to the winter has become less popular. However, it can be easily – and cheaply – done, particularly if you’re lucky enough to live in a rural area. And there’s nothing quite like it to raise the spirits on a cold winter’s day! 
 
If 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 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 too. 
 
The bottom line is that supplements should NEVER be seen as a substitute for a healthy diet. A quick fix so you can carry on doing whatever you’re doing – which usually means some or all of the wrong things (!) – without having to worry about the consequences… Always treat them 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 may 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 take, say, 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 – and health damaging – results. 
 
Let’s take a well known supplement, Calcium, to illustrate how problems can occur. Calcium is well known to help strengthen bones and teeth, but also needs a number of other vitamins and minerals for the body to be able to absorb and use it. Vitamins D3 and K2, as well as Phosphorus, Magnesium and other trace elements. 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 needed 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 Vitamins D and K2 can result in Calcium being deposited in places other than the bones, such as the arteries. While 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, at least, do a little research FIRST and, ideally, take advice on what dietary changes can be made BEFORE considering supplements. 
 
And here’s the other question we always get asked. 
 
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 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 rocks, the soil or 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 our bodies to be able to get the necessary nutrients from them. That’s why we eat plants and animals, as they do the work for us, providing the necessary nutrients in a form our bodies can use. 
 
Having already talked about Calcium, let’s continue with that example. While many people don’t realise it, Calcium comes in many different forms. Some the body finds easy to digest, others it doesn’t. The one most often found in off the shelf supplements is Calcium Carbonate – chalk – for the simple reason it’s very cheap to produce. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult for the body to break down, which means very little is absorbed, so there’s very little benefit to taking it. This is yet another reason why simply buying products off the shelf is so fraught with danger. 
 
So, what’s the bottom line? 
 
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. Even better, take advice from someone who knows about diet, nutrition and supplements. If you do decide to opt for a supplement, always go for a slightly more expensive product from an independent health food shop, made from natural ingredients, preferably plant based. And don’t forget to carefully read the label before parting with any of your hard earned cash. 
 
As always, the choice is yours. 
 
 
 
Photograph by unknown author 
 
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