A dietary supplement is a product taken orally; it contains “dietary ingredients”—including vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals (available as plant extracts), amino acids (known as the building blocks of proteins and which play a role in metabolism) as well as substances such as enzymes (complex proteins that speed up biochemical reactions), organ tissues, glandulars and metabolites—intended to supplement the diet.
- Supplementation is not a substitute for a healthy diet,
- Dietary supplements aren’t and shouldn’t be intended for the treatment, cure, diagnosis and/or alleviation of the symptoms of diseases,
- Before taking any dietary supplement, make sure you speak to your doctor and ascertain that the supplement is safe for you and appropriate for your intended purpose.
Dietary supplements can take the form of extracts, concentrates, tablets, capsules, softgels, gelcaps, liquids or powders. While these supplements can exist as protein or energy bars too, it is crucial that the labelling information on the product not represent the product as a conventional food and should categorically state that it cannot be used as a replacement for actual meals and the nutrition derived therein.
The need for supplementation
Here below we explore a few reasons why supplements might be used.
- Nutrient absorption declines with age: As we age, malabsorption (imperfect absorption) becomes a problem, because your body does not have the same capability to break down and absorb nutrients like it used to. Also, if one is taking medication that depletes some of the essential nutrients that the body needs, supplementation can be considered as a means to rebalance the nutrients.
- Chemical pollutants: Pesticides and herbicides used to farm our food, chemicals found in our water supply and environmental pollutants create free radicals that attack our digestive and immune system and can drastically increase our need for extra vitamins and minerals.
- To fill the nutritional gaps: Most of us may fail to meet dietary recommendations due to strict dieting, poor appetite or changing nutritional needs. Supplementation is intended to bridge this nutritional gap and maintain the proper balance of nutrients.
- Physical activity/exercise/training: Athletes/active individuals require energy and nutrients to support and improve their performance/training ability. As a person exercises, his/her body consumes vital nutrients and energy stored within the body. Based on the type/intensity/duration of the exercise, it is vital to replenish these essential nutrients, fuel your energy and promote recovery through required supplementation.
- Prevent health issues: Healthcare providers are encouraging people to look at disease prevention instead of disease treatment. Ingesting the required nutrients through supplements, getting regular exercise and going for frequent health check-ups are essential for preventing health issues in the long term.
- Lifestyle and dietary habits: Erratic eating habits, eating processed junk food, stress, smoking and alcohol consumption contribute to poor digestion/low immunity/nutrient depletion. While supplementation cannot replace a poor diet, it may help prevent the damage that poor eating habits are causing.
- Certain medical conditions: Some conditions, such as celiac disease or colitis, in which the body may not be able to absorb nutrients properly, or having an active eating disorder that restricts food intake for weight loss or body-image concerns can deplete the nutrients in the body and supplementation may be required in this regard.
- Certain special situations: Special circumstances, such as pregnancy, increase the body’s need for certain nutrients (like folic acid, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamins C and D and dehydroascorbic acid or DHA), and these may be prescribed by healthcare providers to support foetus growth and development.
Commonly used supplement examples
Some examples of commonly used supplements include vitamins D and B12, calcium, multivitamins and fish oil.
Are supplements safe?
According to the United States Food and Drug Administration, some supplements have had to be recalled from the market in the past because of proven or potential harmful effects. Reasons for these include:
- Microbiological, pesticide and heavy metal contamination.
- When a dietary ingredient claimed to be in the product is missing.
- If the quantity of the dietary ingredient is more or less than what is claimed on the label.
In addition, there are always unscrupulous manufacturers who try to sell bogus products that should not be on the market at all.
Before taking any dietary supplement, make sure you speak to your doctor and ascertain that the supplement is safe for you and appropriate for your intended purpose.
General advice regarding supplements
- Dietary supplements aren’t and shouldn’t be intended for the treatment, cure, diagnosis and/or alleviation of the symptoms of diseases. Remember that they cannot completely prevent diseases.
- Using supplements improperly can be harmful. Consuming a blend of these dietary supplements, along with pharmaceutical medicines, and/or replacing prescribed medication for these dietary supplements is bound to result in counterproductive and even fatal results.
- Some supplements can have unwanted effects before, during or after surgery. For instance, bleeding is a potential side-effect of garlic, ginkgo biloba, ginseng and vitamin E. Also, kava and valerian act as sedatives and can increase the effects of anaesthetics and other medications used during surgery.
- If the product’s claims sound too good to be true, they probably are. Be careful about assertions like “Works better than [a prescription drug],” “Totally safe,” or “Has no side effects.”
- Know that the term “natural” doesn’t always mean safe.
- Ask your certified medical practitioner whether the dietary supplement you’re seriously considering is actually beneficial for you.
- Always remember—safety first!
Before any surgery or using any medication, remember to inform your healthcare professional about all the supplements you use.
Supplementation is not a substitute for a healthy diet. It is ideal to choose whole foods and fewer processed foods to meet the nutrient demands of our body.
Disclaimer: The contents of this article are for general information and educational purposes only. It neither provides any medical advice nor intends to substitute professional medical opinion on the treatment, diagnosis, prevention or alleviation of any disease, disorder or disability. Always consult with your doctor or qualified healthcare professional about your health condition and/or concerns and before undertaking a new healthcare regimen including making any dietary or lifestyle changes.