Vitamin and mineral supplements are marketed as an investment in your health, but, dig a little deeper and you might find they are actually a waste of your hard earned money. Companies such as Blackmore’s, Nature’s Way, Centrum and Swisse use celebrity endorsements to make millions each year selling vitamin and mineral supplements that claim to improve everything from hair, skin and nails to memory and focus. However, rarely do you see a dietitian’s tick of approval on these products. Turns out, there is a good reason for this.
Research shows, that unless an individual is deficient in a particular nutrient, supplementation is unnecessary and, in some cases, can be harmful to health. Nutrient deficiency can come about in a variety of ways. For example, in the case of restrictive diets, malabsorption issues (e.g. the elderly and in chron’s diseases), liver dysfunction and polymorphism (error in DNA) diseases, the likelihood of deficiency is high. For example, vitamin D supplements are extremely important for people who are deficient, since it will help them to maintain their bone mineral density. If you are not deficient, then there is no benefit. This is why, if you consider yourself generally healthy, I urge you to pocket that $44.95 you were about to spend on Swisse Women’s Ultivite 50+ and put it towards your next fruit and vegetable grocery shop. Both your body and your wallet will thank you.
It is a common misconception that supplements can be used as a replacement to food. People with an unhealthy diet who feel guilty about eating nothing but doughnuts and potato chips for the past three days think they can make up for it by popping a multi-vitamin. This, however, is far from true.
In many cases, vitamins and minerals are available in a variety of different forms, all of which are important to the diet. Food offers all the forms of a nutrient, while supplements usually only contain one. For example, vitamin E comes in alpha, gamma, beta and delta tocopherol forms. Alpha tocopherol is most biologically active and is the only vitamin E form found in supplements. However, the body requires all four forms, which can only be achieved by consuming vitamin E containing food. This is why I recommend consuming almonds, spinach or sweet potato instead of a pill in order to fully reap the benefits of vitamin E.
Not only this, but food contains other healthful nutrients aside from vitamins and minerals that make contributions to digestion, metabolism and the control of oxidative stress. For example, fibre and polyphenols. Therefore, food has the capacity to make a greater contribution to health than supplements alone. Plus, food tastes a lot better!
Antioxidants are poorly understood by the general public, which is why I find their popularity puzzling. Allow me to explain the function of antioxidants and the effectiveness of the supplement. Then, you can make an informed decision concerning the worth of this type of supplement.
The function of antioxidants is to combat oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is the unhealthy build up of reactive oxygen species (ROS), which, are by-products of bodily functions such as energy and alcohol metabolism.
Antioxidants breakdown or neutralise ROS in order to protect our body from their destructive behaviours.
Antioxidants are produced endogenously (by the body) and are consumed in the diet as various fruits and vegetables (exogenous). Antioxidants consumed in the diet include vitamin A, C and E, copper, manganese and zinc. These nutrients are the main constituents of an antioxidant supplement. Antioxidant supplements are extremely highly concentrated (compared to food) and therefore eliminate mostly all of the ROS within our body. This would be a good thing, if our body’s antioxidant production (endogenous) wasn’t reliant on the presence of ROS. Unfortunately, however, it is. This means that the supplement impairs endogenous antioxidant production by lowering ROS to extreme levels. This results in the body relying heavily on exogenous antioxidant sources (food). When the supplement runs out, and if inadequate antioxidants are consumed (often the case in people reliant on supplements), the body enters a state of low antioxidant capacity where it is vulnerable to oxidative stress. In a nutshell, antioxidant supplements can actually have an effect opposite of what is intended. Seems silly, doesn’t it.
It is a worry that supplements can be purchased over the counter as their consumption, in excess, can have very damaging effects. Reaching nutrient toxicity means that a nutrient has been consumed to a point where it has harmful effects on the body. It is difficult to achieve toxicity through foods, unless of course, you consume a whole bag of carrots every day! This is because, in food, nutrients are less concentrated, and contain factors inhibiting nutrient absorption (for example, phytochemicals). In supplements however, the nutrient is supplied in extremely high concentrations in the absence of inhibiting factors. For example, vitamin A toxicity is very uncommon when consumed as food (for example, carrots). However, it only takes a couple of extra vitamin A tablets to reach toxic levels. This results drowsiness, irritability, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting – just to name a few!
Furthermore, high bolus nutrient doses (e.g. supplements) can overcome defence systems the body has in place to protect itself from toxicity. For example, the absorption of iron is tightly regulated by the body as it is not easily excreted and the poses risk of toxicity. This is achieved by the work of ferritin. Ferritin is a molecule within enterocytes (cells) that line the intestine where the majority of nutrient absorption occurs. It binds to iron and withholds it from the body until iron stores drop, only realising it when it is required. This mechanism prevents iron toxicity. Supplements, however, are so highly concentrated that ferritin cannot keep up with the flood of incoming iron and toxicity can easily occur. Iron toxicity involves liver cirrhosis and iron deposition. Potentially, you could be paying supplement companies to make you sick.
Multi-minerals contain a variety of minerals that claim to improve bone health and energy production. While minerals such as calcium and magnesium are helpful to the body for these purposes, what supplement companies fail to mention is that a high bolus mineral dose impairs their absorption. This is because mostly, minerals exist in the 2+ form which compete with each other for absorption. Basically, the systems that transport the mineral into your body cannot keep up with the supplements excessive supply. When a mineral isn’t absorbed, it is excreted by the body. This means a large majority of your supplement ends up in the toilet!
Furthermore, nutrients will not be absorbed if the body isn’t deficient. If a generally healthy individual, without a deficiency, takes a supplement, the majority of the supplement is excreted. This is most noticeable in riboflavin supplements where its excretion turns the urine a fluoro yellow colour. At up to $58 a bottle, that makes for some very expensive fluoro urine!
While there is a place for supplementation, it is not within the general healthy population. Therefore, I question why supplement companies are allowed to market their products to the general population as something they need. It is my hope that this article sheds some light on the supplement industry and encourages you to think critically next time you reach for you that supplement that will ‘improve your wellbeing’.
Renae Earle is a Masters of Dietetics student at the University of Queensland. Having achieved her Bachelor of Exercise and Nutrition Science with distinction, she is motivated to complete her studies and become an accredited practicing dietitian.
Renae is passionate about evidence-based practice and debunking nutrition myths. She believes that in today’s fad celebrity diet culture, it is increasingly important to deliver the facts. She aims to help people achieve a sustainable and healthful lifestyle by combating the flurry of misinformation offered by tabloids and social media.
In order to achieve this goal, Renae has dedicated herself to the field of nutrition. She is well educated on a wide range of nutrition topics such as supplementation, chronic disease, restrictive diets and metabolism.
Renae has a keen interest in offering personalised nutrition plans that suit the specific needs of her future clients.