All of the international health organizations agree that the necessary vitamins and minerals should be provided primarily by a varied diet, however there are cases when supplementation is recommended in order to cover the daily needs.
The purpose of food supplements should not be to replace food. It would be silly to think that we can mimic a pear or a veggie stew and condense it in a pill. Unfortunately, I have seen people having a whole army of supplements in their cupboard, thinking that their health is sorted, but often in these cases diet is neglected.
Here are some reasons why to choose food over pill:
- Complex nutritional value. A single meal is a truly complex source of nutrients for us, providing the necessary vitamins and minerals.
- Dietary fiber source. Whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits can provide lots of fiber for us, but even more so for our gut microbiota. These substances are not only important in preventing constipation, but they also have cholesterol-lowering effects and play an important role in prevention of other chronic diseases.
- Phytochemicals. There are chemicals in our foods that do not primarily provide us with essential nutrients, but have a protective and supportive role. Examples are polyphenols, antioxidants or other chemicals.
+ Enjoyment. Eating a meal can give real pleasure to us. Replacing meals with shakes or pills, takes away the joy and the enjoyment that flavours and textures provide.
Who needs supplementation?
If you are generally healthy and eat a variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, dairy products, lean meats and fish, then you probably don’t need a supplement. However, as I mentioned above, there are cases and certain life stages when it is recommended to take supplements in addition to your diet.
Let's see who is recommended to supplement their diet:
● Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers. In addition to folic acid, complex pregnancy vitamins provide all of the necessary micronutrients. Of course, a balanced diet cannot be neglected either.
● General population. In the winter months, when the sun is less available, it is recommended that everyone takes 10 mg of vitamin D per day. This is the only vitamin that we cannot obtain solely by eating a varied diet. We need to have it as a supplement.
Beyond these, there are other cases where you might want to consider dietary supplements:
● Vegans, vegetarians. An exclusively plant-based diet should be enough, but it requires a lot of knowledge and planning, so I normally recommend a complex vegan vitamin that includes vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium and omega 3.
● Zinc deficiency is a common problem in gluten-free eaters. It is worth supplementing or even paying more attention to eating a variety of gluten-free cereals.
● If you do not consume dairy products due to milk allergy or intolerance, you may want to consider a calcium supplement.
● Similarly, if you are unable to eat 2-3 servings of fish or seafood per week, you may want to consider an omega 3 supplement.
● After intestinal surgery or in the case of chronic gut inflammation or diarrhea, vitamins and minerals cannot be absorbed in the digestive tract. In this case, medical consultation is required and supplementation is recommended according..
This list is not complete, if you don’t fall into any of these categories, but you feel that your diet is not balanced or varied enough, you may want to consult with a dietitian or a nutritionist.
If you decide that you need to supplement, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Talk to your doctor. Dietary supplements may interfere with certain medications or medical procedures.
- Look what you eat. There are foods that are already fortified with vitamins and minerals such as breakfast cereals or plant based milks.Check the label and If you already eat foods like these, you don’t necessarily need the extra vitamin.
- Avoid overdose. The daily dose is usually indicated on the label. It's worth sticking to. Exceeding the recommended daily value (DV) may increase the risk of side effects.
It’s worth clarifying that I primarily discussed vitamins and minerals in the article. There are additional dietary supplements containing plant extracts and phytochemicals for which we do not currently have sufficient clinical evidence to make official recommendations.
In summary, dietary supplements can be helpful in filling the gaps in the diet in some cases, but primarily we need to work on our diet. Try to include as many health-promoting foods as possible in your weekly diet and be carefully with restrictive diets as you can exclude important food groups.
What does a balanced varied diet look like?
You've probably heard this before, but I’m happy to repeat again and again what is included in a healthy and balanced diet; 4-5 servings of fruits/vegetables per day, whole grains and legumes, meats, fish, dairy products 2-3 servings per day. It’s worth thinking about how we can add more to our daily diet, instead of radically cutting out our comfort foods. In this way, new healthy eating habits will be sustainable and long lasting.
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