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Food Supplements – The Low Down

Food supplements divide opinion. Which is a bit of an understatement. It’s not a subject for the touchy. There are those who scarf down entire alphabets of vitamins, minerals and plant extracts, as if they were the elixir of life. Others see only a billion-dollar industry, a thin evidence base, a gullible public and a mountain of litigation. Given there’s so much contradictory info out there, we’re going to try and dispel a few myths and help you make the decision that’s right for you. And we’re going to use the best method we know: we’re going to stick as close as possible to the facts.

What are food supplements?

It’s a bit of a loose term, but food supplements are nutrients in concentrated, easy-to-take forms – pills, powders or liquids. Common supplements include vitamins, minerals and a bunch of plant and herbal extracts often called botanicals. Supporters say they improve on food – making sure we get the best range of nutrients. They cannot be classed as medicines – in the UK it’s illegal for manufacturers to claim they cure, treat or prevent disease.

Why do people take them?

People take them to make sure they are getting the nutrients they need, either to maintain or to improve their health. Vitamins and minerals are essential for our bodies so topping up looks attractive. There’s also a lot of talk in the media about our diets – and how poor they are – and many people take supplements to compensate.

If you’re starting out on an exercise regime, or are training hard for an event, it can also be tempting to take supplements – just to give your body that little boost. And the market in exercise supplements is big. Whey protein, glutamine, creatine, coconut oil, isotonic drinks: there’s a mountain of them out there.

People also take them because they think they work. Echinacea is said to give the immune system a boost – first point of call for those looking for an early defence against colds. Ginseng is a natural Viagra and brain enhancer. Omega 3 oils are said to boost heart health and lower blood pressure, while multi-vitamins are lauded as a general cure-all.

But do supplements work?

The honest answer is – it depends. According to most reliable sources, healthy adults can get the essential minerals and vitamins they need from food. Eat a good, balanced diet and you can dispense with the pills. Food is usually better than single-source supplements because fresh produce contains a bunch of other healthy stuff along with the vitamins and minerals.

But some people can be helped. The NHS recommends folic acid for pregnant women in the first trimester. Babies, children from 1 to 4 and those who don’t get enough daylight – such as night workers – can all benefit from a top-up of vitamins C and D. There’s also some evidence to suggest that fish-oil supplements can help heart-health.

Are there risks?

Yes. Although most supplements have few if any side-effects, you need to be careful. Just because something is billed ‘natural’ it doesn’t mean it’s harmless. St John’s Wort is said to be good for your nerves, but it can also interfere with drugs your doctor gives you – like anti-depressants and the contraceptive pill. And because they’re not medicines, a lot of them haven’t been researched.

So what should I look out for?

If you are considering supplements – or are already taking them – here are a few things to think about:

  • Buy from a reputable supplier – the internet is awash with dodgy products, so go to someone you trust.
  • Don’t take more than the stated dose. You’ll increase the risk of side-effects.
  •  If you’re taking drugs prescribed by your doctor make sure you ask her about interactions with supplements.
  • If you are pregnant or breast-feeding be extra cautious – speak to your doctor before taking supplements.

And remember, if you’re a healthy adult eating a reasonable diet, chances are you’ll get along fine without them.

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