Expert Nutrition

Nutritional Supplements - Health Benefits or Just Expensive Urine?

Do Nutritional Supplements Provide Health Benefits?

Although traditional nutrient deficient diseases such as scurvy, rickets and beri beri are today rare in western society, a poor diet has also more recently been identified as a major risk factor for chronic degenerative diseases such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. Given the prevalence of these diseases and the lack of cure, the primary intervention currently taken by governing health bodies is therefore to focus on prevention and in particular the importance of a healthy diet.

In 2001, an article published by the American Medical Association recognised the prevalence of chronic diseases and how a suboptimal intake of vitamins typically associated with the American diet was a risk factor for chronic disease that could be corrected through supplementation. This study reviewed many of the health benefits of nutritional supplements and clearly stated that nutritional supplements provide positive health outcomes. The report concluded that all American adults should be taking a multivitamin on a daily basis to achieve health benefits and assist in the prevention of chronic diseases.

There has now been over 40 years of research supporting the use of nutritional supplements in providing health benefits and in the prevention and treatment of nutrient deficiency diseases. For example research has consistently shown that women who supplement with folate prior to and during pregnancy have up to 70% fewer deformed babies. Supplements containing folate, vitamin B12 and vitamin B6 have been proven to be beneficial in the reduction of homocysetine a powerful oxidising agent associated with heart disease. Whilst other studies have confirmed that supplements that contain calcium and vitamin D are beneficial when used in both the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis.

So the good news is ‘yes’ nutritional supplements can help people to obtain nutrients that are necessary to maintain health and prevent some diseases, however it is important to remember that a supplement will always be an adjunct to, not replace, a well chosen diet.

Are Recommended Dietary Intakes Sufficient?

Recommended dietary intakes set by governing health bodies are designed to be sufficient to meet the nutritional requirements of healthy individuals and provide health benefits. It should be noted however that the organisations responsible for these guidelines recognise that there is some evidence that a range of nutrients could have further benefits in the prevention of chronic disease at intake levels above the recommendations that they have set. Additionally people who suffer from nutrient deficiencies or disease may require greater nutrient intakes.

In particular the nutrients for which higher than recommended dietary intakes have been linked to benefits for chronic disease risk include antioxidant vitamins such as vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin A (in the form of beta carotene) as well as selenium, folate, omega 3 fatty acids and dietary fibre. Although greater intakes of these nutrients may provided additional health benefits and reduce the risk of some chronic diseases further research is required to confirm any potential benefit.

In summary although nutritional supplements are not designed to replace a healthy diet there is growing evidence that when used to augment a healthy diet they are beneficial in correcting nutrient deficiencies and may potentially also provide additional health benefits in reducing some of the risk factors know to be associated with chronic disease.

Given that the majority of the population are struggling to meet recommended dietary guidelines through their diet alone (discussed on the last page) and that dietary intakes above the recommendations may be required to help prevent chronic disease the use of supplementation to provide health benefits is well supported.

In regards to disease prevention, in is important to understand that chronic diseases take many years to develop, it is therefore our opinion that a sustained healthy diet with the additional support of prolonged use of nutritional supplements is most likely to yield the greatest benefits.

Now that we have identified that nutritional supplements can provide health benefits, in the next topic we will discuss what to look for when purchasing supplements.

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