Adults generally purchase dietary supplements because they believe them to be beneficial to health, improve their general well being, give them more energy, and prevent or treat disease. Some athletes take supplements in order to improve physical performance or body composition. Growth in the use of supplements has gradually but steadily increased and looks set to continue.
Are supplements necessary and do they benefit health?
In Britain today more than one in three people supplement their diet with multivitamins and minerals. In the US the proportion is even greater at around fifty per cent of the population.
Worldwide supplements are big business to the tune of $32 billion-a-year.
The question remains however, are supplements necessary? Some research is indicating that in many cases, they may be an unnecessary waste of money, and in some cases may even present a negative impact on health.
This is contradicted by other research indicating that many people don’t obtain sufficient nutrients from their diet alone, and so would therefore derive benefit from supplementation.
Are supplements necessary for athletes?
Then we have the question of whether supplements are necessary or beneficial to athletes?
“Supplements make it much easier to get the necessary nutrients to build muscle and can even give you an advantage and enhance your training when taken right and combined with a good diet.”
This is a quote from a major online bodybuilding site, but is the statement accurate? Are supplements necessary? or is this marketing bullshit, perpetrated to create an imaginary need, in order to sell products.
There is still much to learn about how supplements function as ergogenic aids. What is evident, is that their effects are much less significant than the performance enhancing drugs utilised by the majority of competitive athletes. You won’t read this in the industry magazines, or on their websites however, because they are generally in the business of selling you their own supplements.
Most research seems to indicate that for the natural athlete at least, once an optimum diet is maintained, further addition in the form of supplements will do little to improve training results.
There are however, a number of supplements which have been shown to improve physical performance and increase strength.
Omega 3 fish oils
Research suggests that omega-3 fatty acids may positively influence muscle function, helping to improve muscular strength and functional capacity.
Evidence also indicates that athletes benefit from creatine supplementation,mby increasing muscular force and power, reducing fatigue, and increasing muscle mass. I personally have experienced tangible positive results in my own training from utilising this supplement.
Research indicates that beta-alanine boosts both aerobic and anaerobic endurance. It therefore increases exercise capacity enabling harder and longer training.
There is evidence that hypertrophy can be enhanced by ingesting a protein shake post exercise, utilising the so called “anabolic window.” Ingesting the amino acid leucine in supplement form has been found to be even more effective. Additionally there is some evidence that nutrient timing can be utilised to increase assimilation of muscle tissue. Ingesting protein shortly before retiring to bed has also been shown to optimise hypertrophy gains that night.
Increasing overall protein intake above optimal requirements, via supplementation or diet however, has not been shown to increase hypertrophy unless you are a chemically enhanced athlete.
Are supplements necessary for non – athletes ?
Deriving sufficient protein should not ordinarily be a problem for anyone following a reasonably balanced diet, and supplementation should be unnecessary. However there may be a case for supplementing with other vitamins and minerals, potentially missing, or present in sub-optimal amounts in the standard diet.
Other supplements, synthetic vitamins and minerals
The argument for advocating the use of supplements includes the following:
- Modern diets are inadequate at providing the bodies nutrient requirement for various reasons:
- In addition to sub-optimal health and below par athletic performance, inadequate nutrition may exacerbate mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.
- Plant food provides less than optimal levels of minerals due to impoverished levels in soil compared to years ago :
Evidence indeed indicates a statistically significant decline in mineral content of fruit and vegetables.
- Most people do not eat enough fruit and vegetables.
- We tend to eat far more processed food which lack essential nutrients.
Unfortunately modern diets often consist of processed foods that may not provide sufficient nutrients to support and maintain optimal health. Recent advice from nutritionists being we should up our five a day of fruit and vegetables to ten portions a day ! Aside from additional expense, who in today’s fast paced society has time to be able to do this? Not many I would surmise.
- Modern man is subject to specific environmental stressors our ancestors weren’t. These include both food based and environmental toxins.
- We are increasingly more sedentary and spend less time outside in nature. Sitting has been termed the new smoking.
Whilst the statements above are true are they relavent to those individuals who follow a wholesome balanced diet, have clean living habits, and undertake regular exercise? Are supplements necessary for those individuals ?
Inadequate regulation/Therapeutic claims
Supplements are claimed by some in the medical profession to have therapeutic potential for certain chronic ailments. Additionally unlike medication, supplements are classified as food and are therefore considered to be safe, until proven otherwise. Dietary supplements are not regulated in the same way that medications are.
Evidence indicates however that in some cases supplements may be harmful. Excess ingestion of certain vitamins and minerals for example, has been associated with increased incidence of certain cancers.
If you are an individual suffering from a specific health condition, you could therefore be putting yourself at some degree of risk by ingesting certain dietary supplements. There may also be unknown negative interactions with prescription medications.
In 2005 a study published in the British Medical Journal concluded, “The evidence for routine use of multivitamin and mineral supplements to reduce infections in elderly people is weak”.
Experts at the National Institutes of Health argued in 2006 that there is no clear evidence that vitamins prevent chronic diseases.
Academics from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the University of Warwick, said the accumulation of evidence suggests that “supplementing the diet of well-nourished adults has no clear benefit and might even be harmful”. One of these scientists also suggested that companies selling the supplements (worth more than £650 million annually in UK) were creating false health anxieties in order to offer a cure that was not needed.
The NHS advised recently that other than women hoping to conceive taking folic acid, and the elderly and children under five benefiting from vitamin D, supplementary vitamins would be surplus to that already gained through diet.
Humans are naturally adapted to derive their nutritional requirements from whole food sources. Evidence indicates that a well balanced diet should provide us with all that we need.
Vitamin and mineral deficiency
Some vitamins and minerals however are more difficult to obtain from our diet. This is evidenced by deficiencies in certain populations. Two examples of this are vitamin D and magnesium. Depending on your diet and health requirements there may be others, especially if you restrict certain food types, are vegetarian or vegan.
Vegetarians, especially vegans, need to make sure they’re getting enough vitamin B12, calcium, iron, and zinc. Vitamin B12 is found naturally only in animal products.
Certain other vitamins may also have a more pressing need for supplementation. For example vitamin A is found primarily in organ meat and fish liver oils. A good number of people do not eat these foods and so would benefit from supplementing with fish oil for example.
The Health Food Manufacturers’ Association has stated that vitamin supplements provided people with “nutritional insurance”.
How bioavailable are synthetic supplements?
Another question relating to supplements is whether manufactured synthetic nutrients actually provide the same benefits as natural nutrients.
Evidence indicates that when a compound or ingredient is isolated for consumption it is likely to be inferior to the natural, real food source. As previously stated, the body is designed to assimilate nutrients from whole food sources. The method of production of synthetic nutrients is very different to the way they are created in nature. They may be chemically the same structure but our bodies may respond differently to them because they are synthetic nutrients. It is also unclear how effectively synthetic nutrients are absorbed and utilised by the body.
When we ingest whole food, it’s components include a range of vitamins, minerals, enzymes and other co – factors optimised for absorption. These substances may interact synergistically in ways as yet unknown and are absent in synthetic supplements. Supplements are unlikely therefore to be utilised by the body in the same way as natural food substances.
It is known that some synthetic versions of vitamins have already shown inferior absorption to their natural counterparts. An example of this is vitamin E – the synthetic version of which is absorbed only 50% as efficiently as it’s natural version.
Scientific research appears to support the view that natural sources of food are superior to synthetic ones.
It is probable that nature’s foods and the nutrients contained within are broken down and absorbed by the body on a molecular level in ways that unnatural foods and supplements may not mimic.
It still remains unclear as to how well many synthetic supplements are absorbed and utilised by the body.
There is evidence that in certain cases excess of vitamins can be harmful.
The body will likely utilise nutrients best as it is designed to, i.e. when taken in whole food form, from a wide variety of food sources.
There are a number of supplements that have been shown to have increased physical performance or enhanced training results, which can benefit natural athletes.
For certain groups at risk of nutritional deficiency, it would appear that supplementation may be beneficial or even required. For the rest of the population the jury is still out, and the benefits of supplementation remain less clear. Many research studies are also contradictory.
Supplements may be a good insurance policy to ensure adequate intake of nutrients. They should however be used prudently, ideally in addition to a nutritious, whole foods diet.
For insurance purposes I presently supplement with fish oil, vitamin d3, magnesium, zinc and a probiotic.
Vegetarian and vegan diets explained
Synthetic vs Natural Nutrients: Does it Matter?
The effects of consuming a high protein diet (4.4 g/kg/d) on body composition in resistance-trained individuals
Foods, fortificants, and supplements: Where do Americans get their nutrients
Role of multivitamins and mineral supplements in preventing infections in elderly people: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials
Multi vitamin/ mineral supplements and Chronic
Are vitamin pills a waste of your time and money?
Multivitamin and multimineral dietary supplements: definitions, characterization, bioavailability, and drug interactions.
Human plasma and tissue alpha-tocopherol concentrations in response to supplementation with deuterated natural and synthetic vitamin E
Health benefits of fruit and vegetables are from additive and synergistic combinations of phytochemicals.
Natural vitamins may be superior to synthetic ones.
Declining Fruit and Vegetable Nutrient Composition: What Is the Evidence?
Vitimin d – what is the right level?
Effects Of Omega-3 Fatty Acids On Sports & Athletic Performance – EAS Academy
Clinical pharmacology of the dietary supplement creatine monohydrate.
Effect of whey protein isolate on strength, body composition and muscle hypertrophy during resistance training.
Carotenoid Absorption from Salad and Salsa by Humans Is Enhanced by the Addition of Avocado or Avocado Oil
J. Nutr. March 1, 2005, vol. 135, no. 3431-346,