Rightway Health and Wellness provides accurate and balanced information on vitamins, minerals and other food supplements. We often receive enquiries from the media or from health professionals supporting people with diet and nutrition. Here are answers to some of the more common questions.
What is in food supplements?
Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients that the body needs in various amounts to work properly. Most of them cannot be manufactured by the body and need to come from the food we eat.
As well as vitamins and minerals, food supplements may also contain other ingredients such as herbs, amino acids, amino sugars, enzymes and essential fatty acids. Particular nutrients perform one or more specific functions within the body. For example, calcium and vitamin D work together to build strong bones and teeth; vitamin D also supports our immune functions and calcium is involved in the transmission of nerve impulses. Vitamin C helps keep cells healthy and facilitates the absorption of iron whilst iron is involved in the production of red blood cells, along with riboflavin (vitamin B2) vitamins B6 and B12 and folic acid.
Making sure you have the proper amounts of these essential nutrients are vital to your health.
Can people get all the nutrients they need from their diet?
Eating a healthy, balanced diet is the best way to get all the nutrients the body needs. However, US dietary surveys show that many people do not meet dietary recommendations such as eating 6-10 portions of fruit and vegetables a day or oily fish 2-3 times a week.
Some groups of people in particular may find it difficult to achieve recommended nutrient intakes through diet alone. These include young children and adolescents, pregnant and breastfeeding women, housebound or institutionalized elderly people, smokers, heavy drinkers, and anybody on a restrictive diet, such as vegans, vegetarians and people trying to lose weight.
Nutrients can also be lost from food as a result of poor methods of storage, preparation and cooking. In addition, busy lifestyles mean that people are more inclined to skip meals and grab individual snacks without giving thought to putting together properly balanced meals which would provide the right mix of nutrients. This is why most Americans and people worldwide are supplementing their diets.
Does taking supplements replace the needfor a varied and balanced diet?
No. As the name suggests, food supplements are only intended to ‘supplement’ people’s diets and not replace healthy foods. Indeed, the regulation of food supplements makes clear that food supplements are not intended to replace a varied and balanced diet and food supplements packaging is required to carry a statement to this effect.
Although US dietary surveys show that many people do not meet dietary recommendations, everyone should aim to eat as varied and balanced a diet as possible to provide their nutritional needs, avoiding too many processed, fatty and sugary foods. Supplements should only be used to top up any nutrient shortfalls in people’s diets and ensure they still achieve at a minimum the “Recommended Intake Guidelines”.
Although the micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and trace elements) can be supplied by supplements, there are components of food which cannot be replaced by supplements, including the macronutrients: carbohydrates, fat and protein; and fiber (non-starch polysaccharides).
What happens if people don’t get all the vitamins and minerals they need?
Nutrition is the foundation of good health and a considerable body of research has highlighted links between inadequate intakes of vitamins and minerals and poor health.
A 2011 study found that, at that time, poor diet cost the NHS an estimated £5.8 billion a year, an economic burden greater than that of smoking related diseases. It is estimated that 70,000 premature deaths could be prevented each year if diets matched nutritional guidelines. This is more than 10 percent of current mortality and the health benefits of meeting nutritional guidelines have been estimated to be as high as £20 billion each year.
There are now strong links between low intakes of particular nutrients and the risk of developing chronic disease including some cancers, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and depression.
During pregnancy, insufficient nutrient intake can have long-term health implications for the health of the child. Women who are trying to conceive, and pregnant women should take a folic acid supplement of 400 micrograms up to week 12 of the pregnancy to help prevent neural tube defects such as Spina Bifida in the unborn fetus. Recent years have also seen a re-emergence of cases of rickets in babies and children which is caused by vitamin D deficiency, often in the mother; government advice is for all pregnant and breastfeeding women to take a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D.
As well as vitamins and minerals, intakes of marine omega-3 fatty acids have an important role to play in maintaining health. There is evidence that omega-3s can decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, help maintain cognitive function during ageing and may help to prevent some types of dementia and depression.
Given the ageing population in the UK and USA, improving nutrition is increasingly important for enabling people to maintain quality of life in older age.
The economic burden of ill health due to diet, physical inactivity, smoking, alcohol and obesity in the UK
The Cabinet Office. Food Matters. Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century. 2008
World Health Organization. Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases.Report of a Joint WHO/FAO Expert Consultation. WHO Technical Report Series 916. 2003.
Vitamins, supplements and nutrition in pregnancy.
Role of fatty acids and micronutrients in healthy ageing
How do people know which food supplements can benefit them?
It’s not easy for people to tell if they’re getting all the nutrients they need from food, therefore many people choose to take a supplement, such as a multivitamin and mineral, to top up any nutrient shortfalls in their diet and ensure they still achieve recommended daily nutrient intakes. I am not a fan of just randomly taking vitamins due to some having a toxicity level. At Rightway Health and Wellness we test in a variety of ways to determine your nutritional needs. Below are some common deficiencies seen in the US.
Fish oil supplements can also help people who do not eat the recommended one portion of oily fish a week to achieve the recommended omega-3 intake.
For specific groups of people who are particularly at risk of deficiency or who need higher intakes of certain nutrients, the
Department of Health recommends some supplements:
Folic acid supplements for all women who are thinking of having a baby or trying to conceive, and pregnant women up to week 12 of the pregnancy to help prevent neural tube defects such as Spina Bifida in the unborn fetus.
Vitamin D supplements of 10μg (micrograms) for all adults and children through the autumn and winter months. This is one that needs to be monitored by blood if taking supplementation. The Cabinet Office. Food Matters. Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century. 2008
Pregnant and breastfeeding women, children aged six months to five years, people aged 65 and over, people with darker skin as well as people who may not get enough sun, for example those who cover up for cultural reasons or who are housebound should all take a vitamin D supplement of 10μg throughout the year.
A supplement containing vitamins A, C and D for all children aged six months to five years as a precaution because growing children may not get enough, especially those not eating a varied diet, such as fussy eaters. Vitamins, supplements and nutrition in pregnancy.
Is it possible to take too much of a certainvitamin or mineral?
Provided that supplements are taken in the amounts recommended on the pack by the manufacturer or retailer, and the Safe Upper Levels (SUL) are not exceeded by combining too many different supplements, then it is highly unlikely that supplements will cause any harm.
Safe Upper Levels (SUL) were established for most vitamins and minerals in a 2003 report by the Expert Group on Vitamins and Minerals. The report determined the maximum daily intake of nutrients from both supplements and diet that it is safe to consume on a long-term basis. These are based on consumption of a typical European diet and are generally far higher than the Nutrient Reference Value or amount that would be in a typical multivitamin.
Water soluble vitamins – such as the B group vitamins and vitamin C – cannot be stored by the body to any great extent, so if someone takes more than their body needs, it will simply be excreted in their urine.
The fat-soluble vitamins, vitamin A and vitamin D can accumulate in the body, but pose no danger to health if consumed within the SUL indicated for them. The exception is in pregnancy, when large amounts of vitamin A may pose a risk to the developing infant. Pregnant women should seek advice from a doctor before taking a supplement containing vitamin A and people with blood clotting disorders should seek a doctor’s advice before taking supplements containing vitamin E or vitamin K as these have an effect on blood clotting mechanisms.
Some minerals may also cause unwanted side effects if taken at doses above the SULs. In 2006 the food supplements industry agreed, with the Food Standards Agency and the Department of Health, to the use of warning statements for certain nutrients present in food supplements above agreed specified levels. For example, very high intake of zinc can interfere with iron absorption and if taken over a long period of time can lead to anemia.
What’s the difference between a food supplement and an herbal medicine?
Herbal substances come from plants and many are used in both food supplements and medicinal products. For example, sage, ginseng and garlic can all be found in both food supplements and herbal remedies.
Herbal medicine is the oldest and still the most widely used system of medicine in the world today. It is medicine made exclusively from plants. It is used in all societies and is common to all cultures...
What should people check when choosinga food supplement product?
The quality of food supplements varies considerably. It is safest to buy from a reputable brand and retailer. My personal preference is to work with a Naturopath or Nutritionist that can recommend the right supplement for your needs. Some food supplements purchased on the internet can contain substances which are not permitted for use within the US or EU, and in some cases have been found to be contaminated with pharmaceutical medicines or heavy metals.
When comparing products, people should check the ingredients and the percentage of the Standard Reference Value (SRV) of the vitamins and minerals in the product to ensure they are comparing like-for-like. For example, while one product may sell at a higher price, it may also include a greater range of different vitamins and minerals, or a higher percentage SRV.
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