Are vitamin supplements a waste of time?
As a naturopath I get asked if taking nutrient supplements are a waste of time and if all they do is produce expensive wee. It’s an important question - nobody wants to think they are throwing money down the drain! Most people will have heard the phrase - “You don’t need to take a vitamin supplement if you have a healthy well balanced diet.” Even though I really want to agree with that statement (I really do!) there can be a few reasons why a supplement may still be indicated.
1. Do you have a "well balanced" diet? What exactly is well balanced diet made up of? There are a number of different diets and ways of eating out there or maybe you don't stick to a specific one at all! But is what you are eating every day considered to be well balanced and satisfying your nutritional needs? For the purposes of an example for this blog post, lets look the guidelines that the Australian government puts together for a healthy, well balanced diet. (Note: It may not be a diet that you consider healthy - but humour me for the purposes of this post!)
Raise your hands if your daily diet includes…..
5 serves (women) to 6 (men) serves of vegetables and legumes per day?
2 serves of fruit per day?
2.5 – 3 serves of lean protein per day?
2.5 serves of dairy products per day (and/or alternatives)?
(You can find info on the serving sizes at https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/food-essentials/how-much-do-we-need-each-day/serve-sizes)
Keep your hand up if you limit your intake of foods that are high in kilojoules, saturated fats, sugars and salts and low in nutrients? One serve a day as a maximum? These are foods like sweets, biscuits, fast food, crisps, ice cream, cordial, pies and pastries and alcohol (Yes, this includes alcohol guys!!)
One more question (it’s a good one!).....
Do you eat 2-3 serves of fish, including oily fish per week?
These questions have been drawn from the dietary guidelines set by the NMHRC for a healthy diet (except in the case of the fish recommendation – this is the recommendation from the heart foundation). Did your daily diet stack up?
Even then, balanced diets will vary from person to person. Factors like increased needs for nutrients if someone is very active or if certain foods need to be avoided due to food intolerances and allergies might need to be considered. If your hand is still up, then let’s have a look at other influences on the nutrition in your diet….
2. The nutritional value of food can be affected by processing and storage The nutritional content of foods can vary from one item to another of the same food. It can be like comparing apples and oranges. There are a number of things that can cause variation in the nutritional content of foods. The way a food is stored, processed or cooked can all change it’s nutritional value. Milling can affect levels of fibre and B vitamins in grains and cooking can affect vitamin C as it is sensitive to heat. The storage of foods can also affect the nutritional value of food. It is generally accepted that the nutritional value of food will reduce the longer from when it was harvested.
3. Medications You may need to take medications on an ongoing basis but they may increase your need for certain nutrients of affect the absorption of others. Certain medications increase your requirements of certain nutrients. Medications such as statins used to treat high cholesterol can inhibit CoQ10 production in the body. Proton Pump Inhibitors, used to treat acid reflux and heart burn can inhibit the absorption of magnesium and may affect the absorption of folate and B12.
4. Ill health Some conditions may affect your ability to absorb nutrients from your diet. A great example is those with compromised digestive function. If you have digestive troubles – you may have things move through your digestion more quickly than you can absorb them. Alternatively, some health concerns may increase your need for certain nutrients – heavy menstrual periods may increase your requirement for iron.
5. Lifestyle choices Lifestyle choice can have an impact on your nutritional needs. If you drink alcohol, smoke or drink caffeine you have an increased need for certain nutrients. Alcohol can block the absorption of key nutrients in the small intestine and affect the metabolism of others. Those who smoke have an increased need for Vitamin C. Caffiene acts as a diuretic and may remove particular nutrients from your body quicker as well as inhibiting the absorption of others.
Now, it is important for me to say - a nutrient supplement (like a multivitamin) should never take the place of eating well. Personally, I think meeting nutritional needs should be derived as much as possible from the diet but there may be times when it can’t. As you can see, it isn’t always so simple as having a balanced diet and a number of factors can contribute. Everyone has their own individual needs and circumstances and it is always best to seek professional assistance before supplementing - or you may end up throwing your money down the drain!