Do I need a vitamin and mineral supplement?

Vitamins and minerals are essential for optimum health.  Humans cannot make vitamins and therefore we need to make sure that they are present in the diet.

There is a whole host of vitamin, mineral, plant extract, fish oils and other concoctions out there marketed to the public as something they need to be including in their diet.  We are told that by taking these supplements we will feel better, prevent illness and look younger.  With differing doses and formulations available, and many making fancy scientific claims it can prove incredibly confusing for consumers and health professionals alike.  This is made more difficult by the fact that these claims are often backed with sensational claims and headlines in the media.  When reading these headlines, it is easy to see why people are so keen to part with their hard earned cash –and it is estimated that 1/3rd of the UK population takes some form of nutritional supplement.

What is a nutritional supplement?

A dietary or nutritional supplement includes any consumed product that aims to supplement the diet and provide additional nutrients that may be missing from the diet or aren’t being consumed in sufficient quantities.

One of the most common questions I get asked when seeing clients for the first time is “should I be taking a supplement”

For many people the answer is “no” – through eating a healthy balanced diet, high in fruit and vegetables, plenty of wholegrain starchy foods, some dairy foods and meat, fish, eggs or other non-dairy sources of protein most people should be meeting all of their nutritional requirements.

However, there is a number of situations when I would consider a dietary supplement to be necessary and this is how I would make my decision:

When working with a client I would start by looking at their lifestyle as a whole, and ask a number of questions – including a diet history.

 it is important to consider other issues including:

  • How much time and opportunity do they get to spend time outside
  • Are they female and planning to start a family in the near future?
  • Are there other lifestyle issues compromising their dietary intake at the moment e.g. working away from home and struggling to each as much of a balanced diet?
  • Do they have any health issues which may be impacting on their nutritional status
  • Are they restricting their diet for any reason e.g. suspected food intolerance, trying to lose weight?
  • How old is the client?

By spending time getting to know the client I would then base my decision on whether a supplement is necessary and supplements would be considered in the following situations:

Women hoping to conceive, pregnant or breastfeeding

Any female hoping to conceive in the near future should be recommended to take folic acid supplements to reduce the risk of neural tube defects including spina bifida.   It is recommended that a dose of 400mcg is taken whilst trying to conceive and during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy.  Although folic acid is found in green leafy vegetables, cereals fortified with folic acid and wholemeal bread it is hard to achieve recommendations through food alone.  If a lady is thought to be at increased risk of neural tube defects due to a previous family history or genetic predisposition an increased dose may be recommended.

The early stages of pregnancy can also be a time where a female’s diet may be compromised due to nausea and sickness and not fancying certain food groups – specific pregnancy formulations of multivitamins and mineral can be taken and recommended to ensure that they are receiving a balanced dietary intake during this time.  It is important to note that pregnant women shouldn’t take vitamin A supplementation

All pregnant and breastfeeding women will also need additional supplementation of vitamin D

Vitamin D supplementation

The government has recently released new guidance on Vitamin D supplementation in order to ensure the majority of the population in the UK has satisfactory vitamin D levels throughout the year, and to protect musculoskeletal health.

Most of our vitamin D is synthesised through sunlight, however...

"... during Autumn and Winter the sun in the UK isn’t strong enough to produce vitamin D so we have to rely on the food we eat, and many of the population risk not eating enough".

The new advice from Public Health England is that all adults and children over the age of 1 should consider a daily supplement of vitamin D, particularly during autumn and winter.  People with a higher risk of vitamin D deficiency are being advised to take a supplement all year round – these at risk groups include those who have little or no exposure to sun, and those who cover their skin when outside.  People with dark skin should also consider taking a supplement all year round.

All people over the age of 65 are advised to take a vitamin D supplement, however the Department of Health has recently recommended that anyone over the age of 5 years of age should consider taking a vitamin D supplement especially during October and March.  If someone is housebound, not exposed to much sunlight, wears clothing which covers most of the body when outdoors they are more at risk of vitamin D deficiency.  Therefore during these gloomy winter months we should all be taking a vitamin D supplement.

Vitamin supplementation for children

It is recommended that all children aged six months to five years should take a supplement containing vitamins A, C and D. This is to ensure they are receiving adequate nutrition for growth and development as we know children’s diets can often become compromised both as they are weaned onto solid foods and establish their likes and dislikes as they move onto a solid diet.  Children may go through periods of being fussy eaters and a vitamin supplement can help to ease some of a parents concern during these times.

Compromised diet due to lifestyle

There are often times in our lives where our diets become compromised, and it is harder to achieve a healthy balanced diet e.g. working away from home, travelling a lot.  In such situations I would work with clients to try and come up with solutions on how we can improve the nutritional content of the diet.  However, a vitamin and mineral supplement may be required in the short term until this new way of eating is established. 

There have also been occasions where I have seen clients who have a very restrictive diet due to personal tastes and dislikes, and during these times I would also recommend a supplement until we can get the diet back on track.

Taking supplements to try and prevent colds

We may often choose to take a supplement at times when we are feeling ‘run down’ or to try and prevent us from catching a cold.  Vitamin C is the UK’s most popular single vitamin supplement, with annual sales adding up to about £36 million. Other supplements that people often turn to when they have a cold include zinc and Echinacea. All of these have been found to have antiviral properties in animal or laboratory studies, but do they work for people?  A review of the evidence has been completed and they found the following:

Vitamin C

There is no conclusive evidence that regular vitamin C supplementation, at moderate or high doses, has any effect on reducing the general population’s risk of getting a cold. In people who undergo extreme physical stress, such as marathon runners, there is some evidence that supplementation (not specifically with high doses) reduces the risk of getting a cold. Regular vitamin C may slightly reduce the length of a cold in some people.

Zinc

There is evidence that taking zinc within a day of developing symptoms of a cold reduces the duration of the cold by about a day and that regular supplementation (for at least five months) protects people against catching colds. For many people, the limited benefit seen here may not seem worth the expense and possible side effects of taking zinc.

Echinacea

There is a lack of evidence that Echinacea in general can prevent or treat colds. There is some evidence that preparations from Echinacea purpurea might reduce the duration and severity of colds in adults.

So in conclusion

So in conclusion to the question “Should we be taking nutritional supplements?”  the answer is “yes” at the moment during these winters months we should all be taking a vitamin D supplement.  However, unless our diet is compromised in some other way we should be able to get everything we need from a healthy well balanced diet.  If someone is considering spending money on a supplement, I would also recommend that they ask themselves the following questions before spending:

  • What do I think this product can actually do?
  • Is there solid evidence suggesting it will work?
  • Is it likely to cause me harm?
  • What do reliable sources of information say about this product?
  • Even if it could be of benefit, is it worth the money?
  • Is this a problem my doctor can help me with instead?

Blog originally by Heather Kemp