Nutritional science has come a long way in the last few decades. Researchers are constantly finding new patterns and mechanisms, in the pursuit of improving and optimising health. Coinciding with the advances in the field, the supplement industry has exploded. Twenty years ago you might have been lucky, or unlucky enough to have grandma force feed you some cod liver oil. Now supplements stores are popping up on the high street and online with a myriad of vitamins, minerals, plant extracts, individual amino acids and so much more. The purpose of this article isn’t to detract from or promote a particular supplement but more to address the use of supplements in general. I will however be using some examples to illustrate a point, I have no affiliation with any products or brands. Do we need supplements? When can they be useful? Are they safe?
The oxford dictionary defines a supplement as “a thing added to something else in order to complete or enhance it.” So we take supplements to complete or enhance our diet and that’s what I want to focus on first. I don’t believe we should look to dietary supplements to compensate for a poor diet. Popping a multi vitamin does not make up for not consuming fruit and vegetables. It may be better than nothing but is the notion of “I’ll just take this pill, eat whatever and be fine” promoting a healthy attitude? My personal take is we should only consider supplementation in the following scenario’s
· It would be extremely difficult to get the required amount through diet alone. (e.g. creatine has been shown to enhance performance but it would be extremely difficult to get the required dosage through just food).
· You have a deficiency that would be difficult to address through diet alone (e.g. most of our vitamin D comes from being synthesised within our skin cells and requires sunlight particularly of the UVB variety which we lack in the UK most of the year).
· You have an ailment where a specific nutrient in a specific quantity could help (e.g. the amino acid lysine can be used to fight of cold sores).
· You have got your diet down to a tee and are really looking to optimise your health and performance.
If you are in the situation where you have been taking supplements to try and compensate for a poor diet, I think it’s time to start looking introspectively at what you’re currently doing.
I have a few pet peeves when it comes to supplements and the way they are marketed
The first is, it seems we are always looking for a magic pill. There is no greater example of this than the slimming pills that are currently on the market. As much as there may be some evidence to support the ingredients in some, they send a terrible message to anyone trying to lose weight. Losing weight isn’t about taking a pill and watching the fat just drop off, it’s about making sustainable lifestyle changes. The problem is often people think they can just take a pill and eat whatever they like. This isn't entirely the supplement industry’s fault, we ourselves have to be realistic. If it were that easy why rates of obesity continuing to rise? Facing up to reality and making changes isn't easy but it’s the first step to becoming healthier and happier, the answer isn't in the bottom of a slimming pill tub.
Secondly the benefits of certain supplements are often sold based on what I would call “half sciences”. This would be a claim that is based on some scientific evidence but maybe doesn't tell the whole story. An example of this would be collagen supplements. Our skin is made up of a lot of collagen hence it is popular supplement choice for those striving for healthy skin. What is often not mentioned is that collagen is comprised of several amino acids, meaning it gets broken down in the gut like any other protein. So once its broken down it needs to be reformed to make collagen, which is an incredibly complex biological process. Furthermore once its broken down your body doesn’t care that you have consumed a collagen supplement, that could have been any protein rich meal full of amino acids. Also if you lack the other nutrients required for collagen formation particularly vitamin C collagen supplements won’t necessarily lead to that perfect complexion. So collagen supplements aren’t useless in fact several studies have found positive results in term of skin health, however it’s not as simple as we often lead to believe in the advertising.
The price of supplements is a tricky subject. Generally you get what you pay for, cheap supplements for the most part are not the same quality as more expensive varieties. Some supplements can be quite pricey, which is why I urge people to do the research into exactly what each supplement contains and what are the potential benefits, do you really need it? It goes back to the magic pill perception I mentioned earlier. Often people view supplements as an easy option so they spend a fortune on them, when in reality a diet and lifestyle change could be more effective. I generally tend to find the more educated an individual becomes in nutrition the less supplements they take and more specific they are about their supplements. Currently the only supplements I take are Vitamin D in a subliqual form and fish oil. There other supplements I may take for a specific purpose for example creatine or alpha lipoic acid but for the moment those are the only two. This hasn’t always been the case let me rattle off the list of supplements I have taken in the past: fish oil, multi vitamin, 5 HTP, l-carnitine, BCAAs, green tea extract, acai berry extract, CLA and ZMA. Again I’m not saying these aren’t good supplement choices, however I believe I was putting too much stock into the benefits they proposed rather than looking into my own diet and lifestyle habits. This has been a big focus for me this year, to take stock of what I’m eating and what I’m doing activity wise and try and optimise that for me and my goals as best I can. As I’m kind of figuring that out then and only then will I consider adding in some additional supplements to further enhance my diet.
An important thing to consider when you’re doing your research is where is the information coming from. If its from a supplement store or someone affiliated with a supplement company, bare in mind at the end of the day they are trying to sell you something. Take your time check the credentials of the person selling you the supplement are they qualified to advise you on the supplement? do they actually know their stuff? If it is an online article do they provide references to scientific literature, just saying “studies show that” really isn’t enough.
It’s important to get supplements from credible companies. This is especially true when shopping online. It’s so easy to set up an online store these days, anyone can do it. This leads to a lot of non-regulated supplements being sold, these theoretically could have just about anything in them. In fact I know in recent memory, some pre-workout supplements in America were found to have illegal stimulants in them. The moral of the story is to not only research your particular supplement of choice, but also the retailer and company producing the products to ensure you are getting a legit supplement.
One final thing is to be wary of particularly high doses of anything. Generally what we are looking for is what’s known in medicine as the lowest effective dose. This is the dose large enough to illicit a positive reaction, but low enough that is causes the least amount of potential side effects. It’s a case of you certainly can get too much of a good thing. For example a recent study picked up by the media looked at vitamin E and cancer incidence. I was expected that giving vitamin E supplements would reduce the incidence of cancer, due to its antioxidant action. The results actually showed that taking a vitamin E supplement boosted the risk of developing high grade prostate cancer. Now there were several flaws in the study design and the way the study was portrayed in the media. For a full breakdown I urge you to watch this video, which explains the flaws very well.
What I took from this was that we should be wary of taking high doses of anything. Be careful if you feel you need to increases the dosage, do it very slowly with small increments to find that lowest effective dose and do so under a medical professionals supervision.
To conclude supplements can be great, there are so many benefits they can illicit. However, they shouldn’t be relied on to make up for a poor diet. Make sure you do your research, and preferably get your information from a unbiased or reliable source.