How to be supplement savvy

Anthony Devlin/PA Photos.
Anthony Devlin/PA Photos.

To make sense of the many conflicting ‘reports’ about the benefits and dangers of nutritional supplements, GP and nutritionist Dr Sarah Brewer and Rob Hobson, Healthspan’s head of nutrition, talk with Abi Jackson.

:: Does everybody ‘need’ to take supplements?

Supplements, as the name suggests, are there to help supplement a diet that may be lacking in certain nutrients, and of course food should always come first.

In an ideal world, we’d all get all the vitamins and minerals we need from our diets. But in reality, few achieve this, and our diet can change from one week to the next depending on many different lifestyle factors, including cutting back meals to lose weight.

The National Diet and Nutrition Surveys show that significant numbers of people do not get the reference nutrient intake (RNI) for many micronutrients. Even for those who consciously eat healthily, the nutritional content of many foods is depleted compared with how it was even a few decades ago (there’s concern intensive farming methods may play a part in this).

For example, selenium intake has dropped by 50% in the last 20 years due to the sourcing of wheat from low selenium areas; the beneficial fatty acid content of meat and eggs is significantly lower in animals that have been intensively reared; fish consumption’s dropped by 50% in 60 years which is having dramatic consequences on the intake of omega 3 fatty acids. An increase in refined grains has also seen a drop in B vitamins, magnesium, calcium, chromium, iron and zinc.

:: Does a multi-vitamin tick all the boxes, or should people choose specific supplements?

A broad spectrum multi-vitamin and mineral will provide a cost-effective ‘back-up’ to cover most needs, but some people may benefit from additional supplements if they choose to exclude certain food groups from their diet. Examples include vegans, who will benefit from taking a vegan omega 3 supplement as, without oily fish, it’s difficult to obtain sufficient essential fatty acids. Vegans also benefit from a vitamin D supplement (normally found in dairy, oily fish and eggs) and a vegetarian source of vitamin B12.

Over-50s may benefit from eating more foods fortified with Vitamin B12 or taking a multi-vitamin that contains B12.

People who don’t consume enough calories and enough fruit and vegetables could benefit from a multi-vitamin and mineral, and people with a medical condition that affects how their body absorbs nutrients may need additional supplements. Plus, women who experience heavy periods may need an iron supplement.