Are those supplements actually working or are you wasting your money?
Supplements. Some people love ’em, some people laugh at ‘em.
“They go straight through you. All they do is turn your pee orange!’’
“I can’t get through the week without my supplements”
“I’m not even sure what is in these, I just take them because they make me feel like an adult”
Wherever you sit on the spectrum—fan or cynic—it’s probably worth knowing the science behind supplements. Are they essential or a total waste of time and money? Let’s find out.
What is a Supplement?
Supplements come in a wide variety. In general, a supplement is a product which contains dietary vitamins or minerals. They are ‘natural’—which just means they contain things which are naturally found in the food we eat, although often in higher concentrations. They’re not drugs, which also means they are not subject to the same kind of legal regulations as drugs.
Supplements are usually preventative medicine. That means they work to keep your body healthy, rather than fixing a problem. Sometimes if you have a problem caused by a lack of a particular vitamin or mineral in your diet, a supplement can be part of the solution. Humans have been taking supplements for a very long time. Indigenous cultures around the world have used plant extracts to boost their health, protect their immunity, regulate hormones and more.
Why Should I Take Supplements?
The reality is, if you’re eating a healthy diet, you should be getting all the vitamins and minerals your body needs. Our food not only gives us energy, but keeps our bodies functioning well because of the particular ingredients it contains. Our brains and bodies need things like sodium, iron, minerals and vitamins. We get all this from our food. So if you’re eating well and your body is soaking up these nutrients properly—you don’t need supplements. But there are lots of reasons this might not be happening.
Perhaps you’ve got dietary requirements which prevent you from getting all the nutrients you need. If you’re pescatarian, vegetarian, vegan or dairy free, there could be vitamins and minerals you’re missing out on. Or perhaps your body simply needs more of a particular nutrient than your food is providing. Some people are naturally low on things like iron and need help absorbing it. If you’re a woman with especially heavy periods, this could be you. During stressful times in our lives or when we are unwell, our bodies sometimes need a boost in particular nutrients. Sometimes athletes need extra nutrients to keep their bodies healthy. There are lots of circumstances in which supplements can help.
Ask a Pro
There is mixed research about the effectiveness of supplements. It varies depending on the kind of supplement, the brand and the reason why you’re taking it. You should know, some supplements simply don’t do anything (although the placebo effect can be powerful!). Even if a supplement contains high amounts of a particular ingredient, that’s no guarantee your body will absorb it properly. After all, in an ideal world, we’d get all our nutrition from our food. Because supplements are not tested or regulated the same way as medication, it is hard to know what you’re ingesting. There are also some dangers if you take the wrong supplement (e.g pregnant women need to avoid particular supplements). All this means — you should ask an expert.
Healthcare professionals are equipped with years of experience and knowledge. Your doctor knows your body and your needs. They are the best person to ask about supplements. If you’re feeling like you need a boost of vitamins, flag this with your doctor. They can recommend particular supplements for your needs.
Rather than heading straight for the supplement shelf, it is easier and more effective to change your diet. If your body does need more nutrients—look to your diet. Processed foods often don’t contain the vitamins and minerals we need. Plus, if you eat out a lot or aren’t familiar with the ingredients going into your body, you may not even realise what you’re missing out on. Dietary changes can have a massive impact on your health. Think: more energy, better immunity, less muscle pain, better concentration.
Nutrients are important, and food is the best place to get them. A dietitian is a great person to have on your side. They’ll be able to assess what you’re eating and what you need to change. They can recommend diets and meal plans to ensure you get everything you need easily. Plus, if you do need supplements, a dietitian will be able to recommend the right ones. The human body is designed to get all the good stuff it needs from food. So, this should be the first place you look if you want to improve your overall health.
A Good Tool—but Not the Hero
Supplements can be awesome when you need them. For a variety of reasons, your body may need a bit of extra help to soak up the vitamins and minerals it needs. When this is the case, head to the supplements. A healthcare professional can steer you toward the right kind for you. But they shouldn’t be our first stop. There’s only so much supplements can do. Diet is the real hero when it comes to nutrients. The key is: getting the right advice. So, if you’re keen to improve your health or you’re worried you might be low on nutrients—ask someone who knows.
The advice in this article is general only. Professional medical advice should always be sought before making any decisions.