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Do you Really Need to Take Supplements?

Feel a cold coming on? Take Vitamin C. Have a cold? Take zinc. Want to boost your energy? Take CLA. Want to build muscles? Take protein-powder shakes…

Sound familiar?

It seems like for every ailment or fitness goal, there is a supplement to help get you there faster and with less work. It started with daily multivitamins, and now it has expanded to pill-popping for every supposed “glitch” the body presents.

We live in a society where pill-popping has become the norm. Even when we were children, our parents made sure we took our daily Flintstones vitamin, and as we grew older the variety and number of vitamins, minerals, and powers that promised to prevent illness, make us healthier or fitter, or even cure illness.

In this article, I will start to examine some of the most common questions surrounding supplements.

Do I need supplements to stay healthy?

In general, if you are a healthy person who eats a balanced diet, you can get all the nutrients (protein, vitamins, minerals and trace elements) you need from the food you eat. Yes, even if you do exercise.

Consume a variety of foods from all food groups and you will not have a problem meeting your nutrient needs.

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The exceptions are:

  • If you have a special health condition. These include:
    1. A nutrient deficiency, or are at risk of having one. If you have a nutrient deficiency it is important that you take supplements. For this, talk to an RD beforehand to make sure that you choose the right kind, and to discuss your options.
    2. Have a chronic or acute disease, where a supplement may help alleviate symptoms, or are part of your treatment. Talk to your doctor to make sure there aren’t any devastating side effects.
    3. Allergies. Some food allergies may lead to be vulnerable to certain deficiencies, in which supplements might help.
  • Have increased or special nutrient needs due to lifestyle choices. Some examples are:
    1.  Professional athletes
    2. Vegetarians and vegans
    3. People with specialized diets
    4. You dislike certain key foods

How true are these supplement’s health claims?

We can’t make general claims about all supplements, because there is such a wide variety. The range from pure vitamins produced in a laboratory to fruit and herb extracts.

To determine the safety of a supplement, first check the bottle for the following:

  • Look for “USP,” “NSF,” or “Consumer Lab” on the bottle
  • Check the ingredients for the part of the plant, vitamin or mineral you are looking for
  • Look for asterisks on claims – they have to say whether they have been approved by the FDA or an equivalent institution where they were made. Keep in mind that supplements do not have to have FDA approval for effectiveness before getting into the market, but the claims about helping to improve a certain condition (health claims) on packaging do need to be approved.
  • Check for potential side-effects. If there are none on the bottle, you may have to do your own research.
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Also,

  • Do your research. Find scientific articles that demonstrate the beneficial effects of the supplement you are considering taking.
  • Don’t believe the hype. Some supplement companies may find a poorly done study that may indicate that it could have benefits, and base their whole marketing scheme on that.
  • Talk to your Registered Dietician or Physician if you are looking to take a supplement for treating a certain condition. Ask them about safety and side effects.

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How about multivitamins?

Many people take multivitamins as a form of “nutritional insurance”, in case they didn’t get enough of some vitamin or mineral. Studies are conflicting when it comes to the long and short-term benefits of taking a multivitamin.

In general, if you eat a balanced diet and are a healthy person, there is no need to take a multivitamin.

Note that taking too much of some vitamins and minerals could make you sick, since not all of it is excrete from your body if you have had too much, rather it is stored. For this reason, you should always take supplements with caution.

If you want to take a multivitamin daily, make sure to avoid fortified foods (especially cereals) since these often contain almost as much of some vitamins and minerals in one serving as one multivitamin pill. Don’t overdose on multivitamins.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many supplements that could really improve certain health conditions. Before you pop that pill, however, be sure it won´t cause any harm in the process.

Before looking to pills, why not first see how you can increase your intake of the substance you are looking for through food? If that isn’t possible for some reason, do your research, and feel free to talk to your RD about starting a supplement regimen.

Sources:

http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/LabelingNutrition/ucm111447.htm

http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/375357

http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199708073370601#t=article

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140673695927786

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