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Replacing Foods with Supplements


Supplements are concentrated sources of nutrients with a nutritional or physiological effect and they are intended to supplement a person’s daily diet.  Supplements are available in health food stores, pharmacies, and even the supermarkets, but do we really need them and are they good for us?  Read on to find out more.

Supplements and the Diet

Vitamins and minerals should be obtained from food sources wherever possible.  A multivitamin will generally not pose any health risk, and may actually be useful for people who don’t have a diet as good as they could, supplements should never be used as a substitute for a healthy diet.  Healthy, varied diets usually provide all the vitamins and minerals that the body requires for efficient functioning.

Who Needs Supplements?

However, there are some people that will require supplements.  These people include:

  • pregnant or breastfeeding women
  • people that drink more than the recommended daily intake of alcohol
  • smokers
  • illicit drug users
  • people on restricted diets
  • elderly people 
  • some vegetarians
  • women that bleed heavily during menstruation
  • those that are allergic to certain foods
  • those that have trouble absorbing vitamins or minerals from their food – such as those with diarrhea, coeliac disease or pancreatitis
  • people that are recovering from serious illnesses

Folate supplements are particularly helpful for women that are planning to fall pregnant, in order to reduce the risk of neural tube defects occurring in the baby.

Why Natural is Better

While it is possible to obtain vital vitamins and minerals from supplements, it has been shown that vitamins and minerals from natural sources are better for the body.  This is because a vitamin or mineral may not have the same effect on the body when it is isolated, as it does when it is present in food.  Food contains many substances that work together while supplements usually work in isolation.  Phytochemicals or plant chemicals are an important part of food and the benefits that they provide are not found in supplements.

The Potential Risks of Taking Supplements

Taking supplements in high doses can also be potentially dangerous.  Fat soluble vitamins such as vitamin A, for example, are stored in the body, and thus high doses of these can be toxic.  Some water soluble vitamins such as vitamin B6 can also be toxic in high doses.  Taking too much folate can disguise a deficiency in vitamin B12.  There can also be problems with taking too much minerals.  Just taking five times the recommended daily intake (RDI) of zinc, iron, chromium, and selenium, can cause them to accumulate to toxic levels in the body.  Iron toxicity, for example, can cause gastrointestinal problems, nausea, and black bowel movements.  In severe cases, it can cause coma or death.  Too much calcium stops the body from absorbing iron.  Too much zinc can reduce or prevent iron and copper from being absorbed and it can also contribute to immunity problems, heart problems, and anaemia.

Using Supplements Safely

If an otherwise healthy adult chooses to take supplements, they should try and stick as close to the RDI as possible.  Also, always see supplements as a short term solution, as some high-dose supplements can lead to signs of toxicity.  If you need more vitamins or minerals in your diet, look to improving your diet and lifestyle.  Remember, a healthy diet will contain all the goodness you need.


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