It may be nice to think that swallowing a tablet can boost your health but it’s not that simple, writes Paula Goodyer.
‘Single foods can contain hundreds of protective chemicals, and different nutrients can work together to help keep us in good health.’
Dr Tim Crowe, research scientist and dietitian
Ahealthier lifestyle is a common New Year’s resolution, but should that include taking nutritional supplements? Well, there are a few things to consider before you pop a pill – including history.
Using vitamin and mineral supplements to prevent disease looked promising last century, but recent studies suggest single nutrients taken as supplements aren’t as useful as the nutrients in real food. They may, in fact, even do harm. In the 1990s, the hope was that vitamin E and selenium might help prevent prostate cancer, but further research found that they may increase the risk in some men. The latest cancer-prevention advice from the World Cancer Research Fund is that nutrients are best obtained from food, not supplements.
What does the research say?
Last year, a review of research reported in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that the four most common supplements (multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium and vitamin C) did not reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke or premature death, says research scientist and dietitian Dr Tim Crowe. Folic acid showed a small decrease in risk, but with antioxidant supplements there was a slightly increased risk of premature death.
Does anyone benefit from supplements? “They’re important in pregnancy and for anyone with conditions that make it difficult to absorb nutrients, such as Crohn’s or coeliac disease,” says Crowe. “Vegetarians may require extra iron and vegans will need a B12 supplement. People with darker skin and those with little sun exposure have a higher risk of vitamin D deficiency.” But ask your GP to check if you are actually deficient before laying out any cash, he advises.
Who should take vitamins?
“We know we need a healthy diet, but that’s not the reality for some people,” says Crowe. “If that’s the case, a multivitamin every day or every other day might help. Older people – who don’t absorb nutrients as well – may benefit from a multivitamin, too. But whole, minimally processed food is so much better than pills. Single foods can contain hundreds of protective chemicals, and different nutrients can work together to help keep us in good health.”