How to stay safe with supplements

Joy Skipper 3 January 2022

Bombarded by advice to take supplements but not sure if you need them? Here's what you need to know 

The start of a new year for many brings promises of a fitter, healthier lifestyle, including trips to the gym, reducing alcohol intake and a focus on healthier eating. 

This mostly comes from a need to recover from the over-consumption of the festive season, but some have long-term plans and ideas of how they can improve their health over the coming months.  Many people may choose to add supplements to their diets, encouraged by all the “health and wellness” advertising that bombards us at this time of year, in the hope of a quick fix.

The idea that various ingredients in food could enhance physical stature and health as well as athletic performance is not a modern phenomenon, as the ancient Greeks were at the forefront of sports nutrition when they sought various ingredients to optimise athletic prowess during competition. 

Warriors of the time were reported to prepare for battle by using such foods as deer liver and lion heart, hoping that consumption would produce the bravery, speed or strength associated with each of those animals.  Thankfully supplements have improved quite a lot since then!

Nutritional dietary supplements include ingredients that supply nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, proteins (amino acids), essential fats and bacteria (probiotics and prebiotics).

They can be taken in tablet, powder or liquid form, depending on preference or how the nutrient is best absorbed in the body. The supplement market is huge, and with so much choice, it’s hard for a consumer to make a good judgment about which supplement, if any, may have any effect.

Many people take supplements to support their diet, believing they cannot get all the nutrients required through food alone. This is hard to measure as our food comes from numerous different sources, and some may be more nutrient-dense than others.

For example, does a tomato grown on the hillside in the Italian sun which is then shipped over to the UK have more nutrients than a tomato grown in the UK but undercover hydroponically? When we buy fresh food we are unaware of the nutrient content, but are probably more likely to choose by the general appearance, and price.

So how to know if you need to supplement your diet? In some cases there are symptoms that may show if there is a nutrient deficiency, for example rickets in children is most commonly caused by a severe Vitamin D and/or calcium deficiency. As Dr Michael Mosley points out “Most of our vitamin D is generated by the effect of the sun on the skin, but around one in five Britons doesn’t get enough, particularly between September and March when the sun in the UK is too weak”.

A health professional may be able to detect other deficiencies through various symptoms, but without symptoms the only way to know for sure if there are nutrient deficiencies is to test for them, which can be done through a GP or other health professional.

Sports supplements (also called ergogenic aids,) are products used to enhance athletic performance, and these may include any combination of the nutrients previously mentioned. These products are generally available over the counter without a prescription, and are often thought of as a “natural” way to improve the nutrient content of a diet. There is no doubt that certain supplements have proven efficacy in the field of sport. Such supplements may for example:

  • add bulk
  • re-balance a deficiency
  • develop muscle
  • increase endurance
  • aid recovery
  • reduce weight
  • improve suppleness
  • overcome a mineral deficiency
  • re-hydrate

There are therefore, many reasons why athletes may choose to use supplements, not only from a health and performance perspective, but also for convenience. But it’s also important to note that taking more of a supplement that promises these changes may not actually be better. The body needs everything in balance, so taking too much of one nutrient may tip the balance of another, causing other problems.

Ian Craig BSc MSc DipCNE of The Centre for Integrative Sports Nutrition says, “In addition to forming a strong foundation layer of great nutrition, which would include careful sourcing of ingredients and wholesome preparation of meals, bespoke supplements are a worthy inclusion for health in individuals. We are all genetically unique beings, which can include biochemical “weak links” as I might call them, plus modern life throws challenges at us, which can become depleting of micronutrient status.

Seasoned athletes are especially prone to mild, and sometimes severe, nutrient deficiencies because they push their bodies to the limits of adaptive responses, which of course is required in small part to make them a better athlete. What this means, however, is that athletes have even more reason to eat extremely well, plus they need to acknowledge the important role that supplements may play in supporting their health-based-performance.”

"Most of our vitamin D is generated by the effect of the sun on the skin, but around one in five Britons doesn’t get enough"

There are also risks involved in taking supplements as many contain active ingredients that may have a biological effect on the body, which could be harmful, for example:

  • Using supplements with medication
  • Combining supplements
  • Substituting medication with supplements
  • Taking too much of one nutrient—everything in the body needs to be in balance, so taking too much of one nutrient may have a detrimental effect on other nutrients and systems in the body.

In the UK, supplements are subject to EU regulations over their safety and the health claims manufactures can make about the products. Unlike drugs, supplements are not allowed to be marketed as being able to “treat, prevent, or cure” any ailment, so they can’t make claims that they can for example “treat heart disease”, or “lower cholesterol”.   

The body needs nutrients that support all of the systems of the body—circulatory, respiratory, digestive, skeletal, muscular, nervous and reproductive systems and when these are not in balance it may be beneficial to supplement the diet in order to re-balance those nutrients to support the body in optimum health, but rather than waste money or risk ill-health it’s better to always gain advice from a health professional before embarking on a supplementation regime.

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