Most high streets have at least one health-food shop stocked with shelves of supplements; supermarkets have at least one shelf and pharmacies usually a dedicated section meaning supplements are big business. But do we all need them? At first glance, the sheer range of supplements may suggest that we do – after all, there are supplements tailored for gender, age, life stage and health condition, for sports, or boasting specific ingredients ranging from echinacea to prebiotics.
Supplements can play a role in helping to keep us healthy, particularly at times when following a healthy, balanced diet is difficult, or when people are restricting their dietary intake or have suffered nutrient losses. For example, some vegetarians may benefit from an iron supplement, while individuals with poor bone mass or osteopenia may benefit from vitamin D and calcium supplements. Furthermore, there are life stages during which a supplement is key, such as folic acid before and during the early stages of pregnancy to avoid neural tube defects in the growing foetus, or vitamin D drops in infants and young children to avoid rickets. However, we followed the advice of nutrition experts and ate a well-balanced diet including a wide variety of foods, most of us would not need supplements. But as we all know life gets in the way of our best intentions including eating healthily all the time!
When choosing a supplement it is important to question whether the claimed or inferred benefits actually exist. Look closely at the labels, some supplements cannot make claims and instead the benefits are inferred through clever marketing while others are able to make approved health claims with a solid scientific foundation. For example, a claim approved in Europe is the benefit of taking 2g/day of fish oil supplements to help maintain normal blood-triglyceride levels. In Europe, a series of laws exist dictating that any health claims attributed to supplements must be approved by regulators – they should be based on science and must not mislead. Furthermore, supplements should not be harmful or contaminated with other ingredients, and they should not encourage deviation from a healthy, balanced diet.
The bottom line is that supplements can be helpful in fulfilling a specific role, but there is usually no need for their long-term use unless under medical supervision. Those with wide-ranging or extreme claims should be viewed with caution – if it sounds too good to be true, then unfortunately that is most likely the case!