Did you see last night’s Horizon investigating whether supplements are necessary, unnecessary, maybe even dangerous? Maybe it’s left you wondering too? As with most of these programmes, it didn’t really tell the whole story, and there’s plenty of evidence that supports the use of food supplements. Read on to find out.
Dr Giles Yeo argued that most people weren’t really deficient in vitamins and minerals and can get most of their nutrients from a balanced, diet, even take-aways and curly fries! So why use supplements then? His argument ignores the widespread evidence from recent National Diet and Nutrition Surveys that a large proportion of UK adults may not be achieving adequate vitamin and mineral levels, because they do not follow healthy diet guidelines. Even if those foods mentioned contain some nutrients, it ignores the effect of eating a high calorie, high sugar processed diet on depleting those nutrients and negatively affecting health. More importantly, what’s the right level of nutrient for you, taking into account diet, lifestyle, and disease. Are the baseline Government recommended levels really enough, especially if, as the programme acknowledged, you’re young, old, or pregnant? But also, what if you have severe fatigue, heavy periods, take medications that might deplete your nutrients, or have a stressful lifestyle?
Dr Yeo also pondered whether there is a risk that by taking too much of a nutrient, it might have a negative effect. Nutrients do have biochemical effects in the body, and so anything could have a problematical effect in the wrong circumstances. As Dr Yeo said, ‘the dose makes the poison’. This would even be true of water. Sadly, the programme highlighted only a few examples of partial research data. ‘Antioxidants’ might be dangerous according to some studies showing a slight increase in mortality, but these studies have been heavily criticised in the past by a wide range of scientific experts. The studies focus in particular only on vitamin E and beta carotene in synthetic form and combine the results of several different studies with differing doses, confusing the picture. In some studies, the levels given exceeded established safe upper levels for vitamins and minerals. Vitamin E actually requires other antioxidant nutrients to complete its work in quenching free radicals and is not sufficient on its own. Most importantly, we cannot extrapolate this finding to all antioxidants, other or better combinations of antioxidants, or even the natural versions of the nutrients. That the programme highlights oxidative stress as potentially a useful stress on the body up to a point is beyond doubt, but many people may be experiencing higher levels than this and may benefit from antioxidants, as evidenced by many other studies. With regards to the exercise example in the programme, even Professor Ristow’s own paper refers to other studies that have reported conflicting findings to his own.
So, what’s the answer? Things are often more complex than they seem, of course, and we should take research on people’s health very seriously and not make sweeping generalisations based on limited facts and assumptions. The programme rightly concluded that we need more research, and we agree. In the meantime, we should recognise our nutritional needs are complex, unique and that supplements should be suitable to those needs. As multiple studies have shown, supplements are neither miracle nor myth, but in the right hands are safe and beneficial ways of supporting our health.
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