Dietary Supplements – You on a Good Day?

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In 2009 the vitamin and mineral supplement industry was worth more than £270 million.  That’s a lot of pill-popping.  Yet several studies recently, including one released just a few days ago, strongly indicated that supplements are at best unnecessary – and at worst could even be harmful.  Which does beg the question…  What’s going on?

Well before we jump on the ‘research doesn’t prove anything’ wagon, let’s look at some of the facts.  There are 33 essential vitamins and minerals that we need.  By ‘need’ I mean if we completely deprive ourselves of them over a prolonged period, we die.  Based on that alone, taking vitamins probably sounds like a pretty good idea.  However, the Department of Health some years ago put forward a model of how we should be eating, and called it the ‘eatwell plate’.  Whilst it has its critics, it’s a basic and easy-to-understand form of guidance to help educate us around how much of each food group we should be eating every day.

Broken down, this includes vegetables (about a third), starchy carbs including rice, potatoes and pasta (a third again), and then a bit of dairy, a bit of protein, and a little section to allow for foods high in fat and sugar. Despite that highly accurate description, the ‘eatwell plate’ is in fact better represented visually!  Check it out here: )

Ok so far.  But here comes the kicker – the ‘eatwell plate’, applied with a few common sense rules, provides just the right amount of all of these 33 essential nutrients in just the right proportions.  Which means, simply put, that we get everything we need from a healthy, balanced diet.  I’m sure I’ve heard that before somewhere…

But surely more is better… Right?

Well, apparently not.  Results from the recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine show that, from a sample of 450,000 people taken over various studies, no beneficial effect on mortality can be seen from those who took dietary supplements.  They also said that in some cases taking too many vitamin supplements could be harmful.

The supplement trap is so easy to fall into.  It is popular consensus that if you get x amount of benefit from taking x amount of some vitamin or mineral, then doubling that particular vitamin/mineral will give you double the benefit.   It makes a lot sense when I think about it, though, that the body doesn’t need loads of everything to function properly – it needs the right amount of each essential nutrient.  Too little and organs strain under the defiency; too much and they’re surplus to requirements (and therefore a waste of money), and could even be harmful.  Have you heard the story of the guy who decided beta carotene was the best thing ever and commited to eating and drinking nothing but carrot concentrate?  He literally went orange and died at the age of 50!

The question remains:  how much harm are we really doing by taking a cheeky multi-vitamin on top of a healthy diet?  Well honestly, probably very little.  But I think the problem lies in the fact that supplements are so easily perceived as ‘replacement nutrition’. “I haven’t eaten properly today, so I’ll pop a pill to stock up on my daily goodness”.  The fact is, nutrition found in supplement form is NEVER as good for us as the natural stuff found in food.  And this makes sense too – we haven’t evolved around pills, shakes and sparkly effervescent things – we’ve evolved around plants, animals and naturally occurring sources of food.

So should we ditch supplements completely?  Well, no, there is still a very valid place for supplementation.  The NHS recommends folic acid for women wishing to conceive, vitamin B12 for kids under 5 and the elderly, and supplements recommended by GPs for certain medical conditions.  The key point though is that these are the exceptional cases, and that most of us are really wasting our money.

It seems then that the top guys in large supplement organisations are selling billions of pounds worth of products worldwide, that the National Institute of Health Care and Excellence (NICE) say we don’t even need.  I expect they’re laughing all the way home.  Imagine for a second that supplement companies shared all their money with local butchers and green grocer shops… Idealism it may be, but I genuinely think the world would be a better place!