Why take supplements? Do I need supplements?


Medication print

Around 17.7% of American adults have used nutritional supplements in the past year according to one recent survey. But do we really need to supplement our diets with multivitamins and minerals? And if so, why do we need supplements?

It depends on what you mean by “need”.

If need is defined as what’s required to function in a way which allows you to simply survive to see tomorrow, then you probably don’t need supplements. To survive another day we can cope on the bare minimum of nutrients needed to stave off deficiency diseases. However functional impairments may result in the long-term, and quality of life as well as lifespan may not be optimal on a bare minimum nutrient intake.

If need is defined as what’s required for having an optimally functioning body, the story is a bit different. Functioning optimall means not only surviving and staving off nutrient-deficiency-diseases, but also provides all the raw materials you need for feeling as well as you possibly can. It means feeling high in energy and vitality, and having all the nutrients you need to strengthen your individual weaknesses. To fulfil such a need, in my opinion, supplements may indeed be very useful.

A study that was done on a group of lab-rats helps illustrate this point: (I know lab-rats are very different from humans, but there are enough similarities in how the concept of nutrient requirement levels works between species, that it still helps clarify the point) :

  • 5mg vitamin A a day will keep away vitamin A deficiency signs like blindness and sterility
  • 8mg vitamin A a day will help give normal vision
  • 24mg of vitamin A a day are needed for normal liver stores of the vitamin
  • Even more than 24mg a day is needed in rats for optimal functioning of things like growth and reproduction.

But why do I need supplements rather than just a healthy diet?

If we’re getting nutrients into our bodies every day through our food, why do we need supplements? That’s a good question, and the main reason why is that a shocking amount of people have sub-optimal nutrient levels when eating a normal diet.

“A recent national study showed that 74% of women were falling woefully short on nutrients in their diet.” Says Former Chair of the British Association of Nutritional Therapists, Dr Marilyn Glenville. “The National Diet and Nutrition Survey published in 2003 which looked at adults aged between 19-64 showed that only 15% of women and 13% of men actually achieved the 5-a-day target for fruit and vegetables. 74% of women failed to achieve the RNI (Recommended Nutritional Intake) for magnesium, 45% for zinc, 84% for folic acid and 15% for vitamin D.”

Why would I have sub-optimal levels of nutrients?

There are 3 main reasons for having sub-optimal nutrient levels:

Reason 1: Food is not as rich in nutrients as you might think

Why might this be?

(i.) Crops are often picked before they get to peak nutritionally

When you pick fruit before it has fully developed, it may not have had the opportunity to reach it’s peak level of nutrients yet. Often fruit is picked before it is ripe, to help it last longer during transport, and is ripened artificially before it is put on the shelves.

(ii.) Processing strips food of nutrients:

A lot of the foods around us are stripped of their nutrients. Whenever something is processed certain nutrients are lost, whether it’s milled into flour, canned, cooked. Even fresh foods are “processed” by simply being transprote for long periods of time from farms to get to us.

As one example, look at the table below of vitamin C losses when peas and potatoes undergo different processing methods, even seemingly innocuous ones like “boiling”.

Processing method Vitamin C (mg/100g) Processing loss
Fresh 24
Boiled 16 loss of 8mg, that’s a loss of 33% from the fresh
Frozen and boiled 12 loss of 12mg, that’s a loss of 50% from fresh
Canned and heated 1 loss of 23mg, that’s a loss of 96%!!!
Processed peas (ie undergone heat treatment and mineral treatment) 0 Loss of 100%
Fresh 11
Boiled 6 loss of 5mg, that’s 45% loss

(Source: King’s College London; Nutrition Department lecture notes)

Many of us believe we’re getting vitamin C from our peas in spite of the fact that they may have been swimming in nutrient-leaching fluids in cans for months, and have actually lost 96% of their original vitamin C content!

For those of us who eat white bread, we often don’t realize that most of the nutrients have been refined out to the extent that it needs to be artificially fortified.

Effect of milling on trace elements
Trace element Whole wheat flour White flour (72% extraction)
Iron (mg/100g) 43 11
Zinc (mg/100g) 35 8
Manganese (mg/100g) 46 7
Chromium (ug/100g) 50 30
Selenium (ug/100g) 630 530
Molybdenum (ug/100g) 480 250

(Source: King’s College London; Nutrition Department lecture notes)

(iii.) Soils aren’t as rich in minerals as they once used to be

In many farms around the world, the soil has been overfarmed causing nutrient-depletion of the soil. Since crops largely gain their nutrients from the earth, low nutrient levels in the soil mean low nutrient levels in our food. Even soil that has undergone careful treatment to maintain high levels of nutrients (such as lying fallow, crop rotation, fertilization and other techniques), may still not contain the full spectrum of nutrients we need. Another factor to consider is that different locations in the world have different levels of minerals in the ground.

Reason 2: You may not be absorbing large amounts of the nutrients

As it stands, for a lot of nutrients we absorb a pretty small percentage of the amount we are exposed to. For example, the average absorption of iron from food is only 1-25% of the full amount found in meat sources and a mere 1-10% of the amount found in plant sources.

People with conditions like gut inflammation, food intolerances, malabsorption, and poor digestive function may also have reduced absorption levels of nutrients, meaning that they need a lot more in order to get the required amount for optimal health. The older we get, the poorer our absorption often becomes.

Reason 3: You may be using up nutrients at higher levels than you might think, so you need larger amounts to replenish them

Every day we are subjected to things that deplete our nutrient levels which our ancestors were not exposed to.

For example, nutrient depletion is accelerated by smoking, pollution, exposure to chemicals, pesticides, radiation, alcohol, stress and emotional strain.

People with certain imbalances in the body and various illnesses also may deplete nutrients at a faster rate. Presence of parasites are a fine example of how nutrients can be leached by an ailment and something like diarrhoea or vomiting is another clear example of how nutrients can be lost. Other illnesses that one might not associate with nutrient losses, may also deplete nutrients, like arthritis, or even psychological conditions like depression, because they are a biochemical and physiological stress on our bodies.

In addition, conditions like pregnancy, lactation and growth use up nutrients in higher amounts.

Ok, that makes sense, but if all this is true, why do I feel perfectly fine without taking supplements? And how come my grandma lived to 120 without taking any? AND why don’t I feel any differently whenever I take supplements?

We’re all individuals, so we all have slightly different requirements for nutrient levels we must consume. It may well be that you are lucky enough to have a body that has amazing absorption, doesn’t deplete nutrients, and functions well on a lower level of nutrients. However, in my opinion it’s far more likely that if you are young, the effects of nutrient deficiencies may arise later in life after being deficient for a long period of time. The world of nutrition works gently and slowly where the effect of a supplement used therapeutically may potentially take a few months to kick in. This is also why you don’t necessarily feel any differently a day or a week after you take supplements. When taken at doses required for good health, nutrients work on subtle levels, maintaining your body functioning so that you maintain your current good health. They are great preventatives, and studies following people taking various supplements for years have found that specific supplements do reduce the risk of developing a wide range of sinister health conditions. In fact, the idea is to take supplements so that you won’t ever feel differently than you do when you’re healthy!

If you have found in the past that you don’t feel any differently in spite of taking supplements not for prevention, but for therapeutic purposes for a certain condition, there are many possible reasons for this.

  • – It may be that you’re not taking the right dose,
  • – It may be that you’re not taking the right supplement (the right combination of nutrients, or the right chemical form of the nutrient).
  • – In addition supplement companies differ in their quality and therefore effectiveness of product.
  • – Not only this but if there are problems in absorption which aren’t addressed, then you won’t be absorbing much of the supplement either.
  • – It may also be that nutritional deficiency isn’t the only contributor to the particular ailment which is occurring. Aside from physical contributors which may be affecting the situation, psychological factors often are contributors too. So it’s important to address the problem holistically, from all dimensions, including but not only limited to nutrition, to help alleviate the problem.

What about your grandma who lived to 120 without supplements? It’s all related to us being individuals with different needs. Maybe your nan wasn’t exposed to as many nutrient-depleting factors in her lifetime. And if she was explosed to many nutrient-depleting factors, and smoked 2 packs of cigarettes a day and still lived to 120, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) explains this with the concept of Jing. TCM theorizes that we’re all born with different strengths of constitutions. Some of us are lucky enough to have a lot of Jing (strength and energy) from birth, and these are the types of people who can get away with smoking, eating badly and still have enough Jing left over to live long lives in apparent good health. Other people aren’t as lucky, and are born with lower Jing. If they act in the same was as their high-Jing counterparts, this may result in ill-health cropping up, and shortened lifespans.

Vitamin C shirt

Supplements sound way better than food – Can I just take tablets instead of eating?

Most definitely, no! Whilst supplements can be a fantastic way of *supplementing* your healthy diet, it is certainly not a substitute. A tablet may contain 1 or more individual nutrients, but a food contains a plethora of nutrients which you may not be supplementing as well as other factors like enzymes and antioxidants. Many also believe food has a unique, immeasurable “life force” which cannot be replicated in supplements. In other words, the whole food is more than the sum of its parts.

Cautionary Note about supplements
Where nutrients are used therapeutically, it is important not to begin seeing them as “alternatives to drugs” where you give them to treat certain symptoms. The root of the problem should always be addressed, and supplements can be used to tune up health until the root cause is sorted out.

Where nutrient supplementation is used for general maintenance of good health and prevention of disease, some nutrients in supplement form are best avoided. This applies where studies have shown that supplementation is associated with some degree of risk. For example, iodine supplementation has been associated with the triggering of autoimmune disease in some people with a genetic predisposition for this.

Similarly, some supplements are extremely useful and beneficial to take in the short-term to support your health, but can have negative effects if used at high doses in the long-term (i.e. for decades). This applies to antioxidant nutrients like vitamin E, vitamin A, beta carotene and vitamin D. Too much of anything, even a good thing, is usually not a good idea.

As Dr Mercola says, the Goldylocks formula of “not too little, not too much” is key for good health. To get it “juuust right”, having a nutritionist or naturopath guide you through the complex world of supplementation is advisable.

The Bottom Line:

The bottom line is that in my opinion supplements can play an important role in the maintenance of good health, both in prevention and when used therapeutically. But nutrients used in supplementation, their forms, and brands should be chosen carefully. It is also important to keep in mind that supplements simply cannot emulate the natural combination of goodies in foods, nor make up for other factors in life which may impact on health, they must be used hand-in-hand with a holistic healthy diet and lifestyle for the best results.

Related articles
- Why do I need zinc?
Why do I feel tiredness after eating? and what can I do about it ?
Why do I keep getting colds?
Why does my stomach make noises? and what can can I do about it?
Why do I have bad breath? and what can I do about it?

Related Products

My favourite multivitamins:

Most multivitamins contain iodine, which I  do not use in anyone who has autoimmune antibodies in their blood test results or a family history of autoimmune disease, but if you have neither of these then my favourite multivitamins to use due to their superior quality and brilliant dosage-levels are:

For people with autoimmune connections I tend to supplement nutrients either with an iodine-free multi like Nature’s Plus’ Nutri-Genic Softgels
or I supplement individual nutrients to suit the unique needs of the person.

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Every effort has been made to ensure that the information contained in this article is accurate. However the information contained in this article is for educational purposes only. Suggestions contained in this article are not intended as a substitute for consultation with a health professional. All matters regarding health and supplementation require medical supervision and careful examination of contraindications. The author does not accept responsibility for the use of this information, nor shall the author be liable for any loss, injury or damage allegedly arising from any information or suggestions in this article.


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