What are supplements?
As their name implies, dietary or nutritional supplements include any consumed products that aim to supplement the diet and provide additional nutrients that may be missing from it, or aren’t being consumed in sufficient quantities. Today’s supplements contain not just vitamins and minerals, but herbs, amino acids, enzymes, fibre and fatty acids. They also come in a variety of forms, including traditional tablets, capsules, powders, drinks and supplement bars. They can be found in supermarkets, pharmacies, health food shops and, of course, on the internet. Many supplements are actually classified as foods rather than medicines and so don’t have to go through the usual checks and regulations a medicine would go through for safety and efficacy (how well it works) before being put on the market. They are covered by the Food Safety Act and should not be harmful to health.
Other supplements are classified and regulated as medicines because of their reported effects and methods of use. This means that different products that contain the same main ‘active’ ingredient may actually have different classifications, with some classed as foods and others as medicines.
Who takes supplements and why?
People take supplements for all kinds of reasons, usually relating to their health. They hope these will boost vitality, limit the signs of ageing, extend life, cut the risk of chronic disease such as cancer and treat specific ailments such as arthritis. According to research by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in 2008, nearly a third of people in the UK take some vitamin, mineral or dietary supplement on most days, and about 15% of us report having taken a “high dose” supplement in the last 12 months. The main reason we take supplements is for our general health and wellbeing.
Should we be taking supplements?
There is not a straightforward yes or no answer to this question, both because of the range of products available and because an individual’s circumstances will govern whether they would benefit from using a particular supplement. For example, even with popular, well-known products such as multivitamins things are not as clear-cut as you might imagine.
There are, of course, certain vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that are essential for keeping the body functioning, but experts agree that most people can get enough of these nutrients from eating a balanced diet and, in the case of vitamin D, from getting enough sunlight. On the other hand, there is good evidence that certain vitamin supplements may be beneficial to the health of certain groups of people, such as the elderly, pregnant women and children between six months and five years old.
In other cases, people may be taking supplements for specific health reasons, for example, using glucosamine in a bid to protect their joints. In this particular case the most comprehensive evidence reviews to date suggest that there is no overall benefit, and bodies such as the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) do not recommend its use. However, there are certainly still plenty of people buying glucosamine, and in these cases it’s best that this personal choice is made in an informed way, with knowledge about what the evidence says and any potential harms.
At the other end of the scale some supplements sold over the internet, such as certain herbal weight-loss products, have been found to contain banned substances that carry a signifcant risk to health. It’s clear that in these cases nobody should be taking these dangerous products.
In short, there is no easy answer to the question of whether we should be taking supplements, but what is clear is the need for people to know what they are taking, to know whether it is likely to help and to know whether it is likely to harm.
Ultimately, though, before you do actually buy or use a supplement product, you should consult your GP.
As a doctor they can offer you an informed opinion about whether a particular dietary supplement is necessary or advisable, making these recommendations based on your personal health circumstances. They will also be able to check your general health, make a professional diagnosis of any health problems you may have and offer you other forms of treatment.