You Asked, We Answered: What’s The Deal With Health Supplements?


You Asked, We Answered: What’s The Deal With Health Supplements?

Elite Trainer, Tim Hart, helps you to make sense of the endless pills and potions stacked on health shop shelves


Walk into any health food shop and you’ll likely find a product professing to benefit any and all aspects of your health. Seemingly every nutrient, vitamin, mineral or chemical is now available in a plastic bottle.

But people are still tired, still getting colds, still struggling to lose weight or burn fat. Few of these pills seem to deliver on any of their promises. So what’s the deal? Are health food companies just pushing fake placebos to unsuspecting customers? Or are we ourselves to blame for being too receptive and eager to buy a quick fix in a supplement form?

Here we took a look at some of your common questions to give you a lowdown on the supps to pop and those to drop.

“Supplements must have a benefit or companies wouldn’t be allowed to sell them, right?”

Unfortunately, not true. It’s certainly illegal to sell a supplement that causes harm – but it’s not illegal to sell one with no health benefits at all. To understand this, think about chocolate cake. It has little health benefit beyond providing sugar for energy, but it’s still legal to buy and sell. The same applies to supplements – they don’t have to have a health benefit in order to be legally sold.

“But the supplement label lists some health benefits. These must be true?”

Yes – but only in certain situations. Take niacin (or vitamin B3) for example. The label says “supports the reduction of tiredness and fatigue”. This statement relates only to those with a niacin deficiency. Correcting this deficiency can reduce fatigue. However, even the governing body responsible for food labelling states it is highly unlikely anyone in Europe will develop a niacin deficiency, due to its abundance in everyday food.

Health statements may have some truth but they can still be misleading to the average person. It’s up to us to understand this and in doing so, realise that not all supplements will deliver to the extent we’re lead to believe.

“Does that mean vitamin and mineral pills are bad?”

In some cases, yes. For example.

– Smokers should not consume supplementary forms of vitamin A and beta-carotene as this may further increased the risk of lung cancer.
– Those with a risk of cardiovascular disease should avoid high doses of calcium.
– Anyone taking medication should check for possible interactions. Even simple vitamins can interfere or excessively enhance the effects of medication.
– The overconsumption of supplements is not advisable for anyone. Certain minerals and fat-soluble vitamins will build up in the body and create toxicity problems. Stick to safe levels.

With that aside, it’s unlikely they’ll be bad for most of us. Usually in the worst case they are simply pointless – a pain in your wallet, but little else.

“So are there any health supplements you recommend?”

Yes. Magnesium, vitamin D, Omega 3 and curcumin (turmeric extract) are widely available and can be beneficial.

Magnesium and vitamin D are two of the most common micronutrient deficiencies in the UK, especially during winter, in the case of vitamin D. Our body uses sun rays to create the vitamin, which are obviously few and far between during British winter. Supplementation is therefore worthwhile. Additional magnesium can help reduce issues associated with chronic diseases such as diabetes as well as improve sleep quality, whereas vitamin D intakes may have additional benefits to your immune system and heart health and be protective against some cancers.

Omega 3 is another nutrient most of us don’t get enough of. It’s positively associated with improving a variety of health factors such as blood pressure, inflammation levels and mental cognition. Supplementation of the active components EPA and DHA found in fish oil can be a powerful aid in helping improve general wellbeing.

Turmeric acts as a potent anti-inflammatory and is linked to improved cell health, brain and liver function. It also seems to have a protective effect against some cancers and helps reduce risk factors associated with heart disease.

“What should I look for before I buy?”

Once you’ve figured out which supplement is worth the investment in your health, it’s still necessary to check a few other things on the bottle before you buy.

Just like regular food, the ingredients used make a difference. Take magnesium for example. Many products use cheaper magnesium oxide as the primary ingredient but it’s not as easily absorbed in the body. Instead look for other forms such as magnesium citrate or magnesium gluconate, which are much more bioavailable and therefore beneficial.

Most vitamin D products usually come in the form of cholecalciferol or D3, which is ideal. But consider the dose consumed. 25 micrograms (1000 IU) is higher than many current government guidelines, but research shows it can enhance many of the benefits mentioned above.

When considering Omega-3, look for the amount of EPA and DHA. These are the active compounds that make up Omega-3 oil and are linked to its many health benefits. Supplements with higher levels per serving usually cost more. However, online retailers (such as Genetic Supplements) now supply higher grade EPA and DHA supplements. Unfortunately, most high street retailers and even branded supplements are yet to catch up. Aim for 1000mg of EPA and 500mg of DHA per day.

There are a few things to look out for with turmeric supplements, too. Firstly, turmeric simply put into capsules and sold as a supplement is almost useless. Look out for the words turmeric extract, curcumin or curcuminoids on the label. These should contain proper levels of the active compound. Secondly, curcumin is poorly absorbed in its standard form. It needs special treatment to make it fat or sugar soluble to aid absorption. Look for brands such as Healthspan and FutureYou that provide concentrated turmeric supplements in an absorbable form.

“You’ve mentioned the average person. Are there any supplements for specific groups that are worth considering?”

Yes. Vitamin B12 for vegans, vegetarians and those over 65 years old and folic acid for women who might become pregnant.

Vitamin B12 is really only found in food from animal sources, hence vegetarians and vegans may be deficient. Research also shows older people tend to have developed a deficiency by the time they reach the age of 65, too. This can result in fatigue, both physical and mental, and therefore supplementation is worth considering.

Folic acid is something all women looking to conceive should be taking. Low folic acid levels during the early stages of pregnancy can result in complications, so precautionary supplementation is recommended. The amount taken is important so stick to the recommended 400 micrograms.

“So what’s the bottom line?”

Supplements can be a useful addition to our diet. But remember these benefits are easily lost if we don’t pay attention to the bigger picture. The food we eat, the amount of exercise we get, how much sleep we have and our general happiness play a much greater role in shaping our lives. Work hard at each to supplement better health.

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