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Do we really need to supplement our diet?

Do we really need to supplement our diet?
21/12/2012 Mike
Do we need to supplement our diet?

Looking at the research, the evidence that everyone needs to supplement their diet with a basic set of vitamin and mineral supplements and essential fatty acids in order to achieve optimum health is simply overwhelming. Here are some of the reasons:

Food quality has deteriorated over the years so even if you eat a relatively healthy diet the mineral level in the food we eat has decreased dramatically:

Since the 1930s, the British government has regularly produced Composition of Food Tables. In a study published in the 1997 issue of British Food Journal, researcher Anne-Marie Mayer used these food tables to study the mineral content of fruits and vegetables grown in the 1930s compared to those grown in the 1980s.

The study found that the levels of calcium, magnesium, copper and sodium were significantly reduced in vegetables and magnesium, iron, copper and potassium were significantly reduced in fruit.

The only mineral that showed no significant difference over the 50-year period was phosphorus[i].

Getting the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of Vitamins and Minerals is not enough.

You might think that if you aim to achieve RDA’s through the food you consume or through a combination of your diet plus supplements that you’re doing enough. If that’s the case then bear in mind that RDA levels are set not to enable you to achieve optimum health but rather to guard against obvious vitamin deficiency diseases.

As such RDA’s are, therefore, absolute minimum figures.[ii] A comparison of the RDAs for Great Britain, America, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and West Germany shows considerable variation in the various governments’ estimates of our daily requirements.

Since it’s our health that’s at stake, wouldn’t it be better to take the highest (and therefore safest) estimate of the RDAs?[iii].  Encouragingly we have seen a trend for scientists to argue for RDAs to be set at higher levels.

In particular a growing body of scientists is highlighting the fact that RDA levels for vitamins C and D are set too low.

Let’s look at the arguments:

Vitamin C

In the context of vitamin C, scientists are pointing out that rather than just preventing deficiency diseases it would be more appropriate to seek optimum levels that will saturate cells and tissues and pose no risk[iv].  The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of vitamin C is less than half what it should be, scientists stated in a recent report.[v]

Vitamin D

In relation to vitamin D too there is an increasing body of science that suggests the current RDA for vitamin D is way too low. According to some of the new estimates, we could need up to ten times more than we are told we should be getting at the moment.[vi]

A recent Department of Health funded National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS)[vii] found low vitamin D status in adults and children which has implications for bone health: in particular increased risk of rickets and osteomalacia.

Experts have said vitamin D deficiency was a ‘major public health concern’ but most doctors have yet to ‘wake-up’ to the problem. “The effects of low vitamin D levels in the body are very serious as adequate levels may be necessary to prevent:

  • Common cancers,
  • Heart and autoimmune diseases,
  • Rickets,
  • Osteomalacia (bone pain and muscle weakness),
  • Diabetes,
  • Multiple sclerosis, and
  • Depression.”[viii]

Professor Nicholas Clarke, consultant orthopedic surgeon at Southampton General Hospital, said children as young as two are being diagnosed with full-blown rickets with the classic Victorian symptoms of bowed legs that may require surgery. Earlier this year Prof Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England, highlighted the problem and said up to one in four people have low levels of vitamin D.[ix]

The RDA also does not take adequately into account that individuals have different nutritional needs.

  • Gender, lifestyle and genetic predispositions all determine the appropriate levels of nutrients we need. For example, women often need higher levels of iron than men especially if they have heavy periods.
  • Men need higher levels of zinc[x] for a number of reasons including the most commonly known reason – that zinc controls the metabolic levels of testosterone in the prostate gland and is required for the production of semen.

One more word on RDAs – the quality of supplements varies hugely – since the absorption of a nutrient from a tablet can be as low as 5%, the fact that the label states it contains 100% of the RDA doesn’t mean that much of it gets absorbed.

There are many factors that affect how well individuals will absorb a vitamin or mineral, the main ones are:

The form that a vitamin or mineral is in

  • For example, calcium citrate has been shown to have superior bioavailability (i.e. it is more easily absorbed and used by the body) when compared with calcium carbonate.[xi]
  • In the case of magnesium, magnesium oxide appears to have high amount of elemental magnesium. One 500 mg capsule of magnesium oxide contains 300 mg of elemental magnesium. But little of that amount is available to the body because it is not absorbed and therefore not biologically available.  One recent study reported 4 percent absorption rate of magnesium oxide.[xii]  If you’re looking for a magnesium supplement think about taking in citrate or other form.

Vitamins and minerals often work synergistically

  • For example,  magnesium, vitamin D and vitamin K2 are vital for bone strength, insufficiency of any of these can lead to impaired retention of calcium in the bones, leading to bone weakness.[xiii] .
  • A supplement routinely recommended for women in their first trimester of pregnancy is folic acid It is important to know that folic acid also requires adequate amounts of vitamin B12 in order to facilitate the production of red blood cells.  Thus taking a B-complex supplement of suitable strength can maximize the effectiveness of folic acid.[xiv]

Consuming refined foods uses up masses of nutrients,

  • This is especially the case with already scarce nutrients such as selenium, chromium and magnesium.

There is No RDA at all for Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids yet probably the majority of doctors see them as crucial to good health.

Dr Richardson of the charity ‘Food and Behaviour Research’ believes that consuming more of the vital Omega 3 fats found in fish and seafood is probably the single most important dietary change that most people could make to improve their health’.

‘However, surveys show that nine out of ten Britons don’t get the minimum they need to maintain a healthy heart (around 500mg/day), let alone to support optimal brain and immune system functioning (1000mg/day).'[xv]

The best way to ensure that you’re getting adequate levels of Omega 3s is by consuming 3 portions of oily fish week.  Most people don’t get anywhere near that and often Omega 3 supplements don’t contain the right form of Omega 3.

It is EPA and DHA found in fish that are crucial for brain function and mental well-being.  Vegetarians should opt for an Omega 3 supplement that contains DHA from algae.  When choosing Omega 3 supplements make sure that you’re getting at least a 1000mg a day of combined EPA and DHA.[xvi]

Conclusion

As a minimum, everyone should be taking a good multivitamin and mineral supplement as well as Omega 3 oil that contains requisite levels of DHA and EPA.

There is a bewildering range of supplements out there and it’s worth taking advice from a professional on levels you might need.

Taking too much of a vitamin or supplement can be just as harmful as not having enough.  There are plenty of supplements out there that are ineffective because they are not in the correct form to optimize absorption, or they are bulked out with unnecessary and unnatural fillers, or they don’t contain the appropriate combinations of minerals/vitamins to optimize absorption.

Please do your research and ensure that you buy supplements from reputable companies with safe, reliable and properly formulated products.


[i] Mayer AM. Historical changes in the mineral content of fruits and vegetables. British Food Journal. 1997; 99(6):207-211.

[ii] http://www.ion.ac.uk/information/onarchives/vitamincontroversy

[iii] ibid.

[iv] http://www.lesliebeck.com/page.php?id=3416&type=art

[v] Ibid.

[vi] http://www.patrickholford.com/index.php/advice/lifestagearticle/331/

[vii] National Diet and Nutrition Survey: Dept. of Health, published, 27 Oct. 2011, http://www.dh.gov.uk/en/Publicationsandstatistics/Publications/Publications statistics/DH_130728

[viii] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/9698670/Britains-bad-summer-will-see-epidemic-of-vitamin-deficiency-expert.html

[ix] ibid.

[x] http://medical.yourdictionary.com/articles/do-men-need-more-zinc-than-women.html

[xi] http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/412220

[xii] http://www.medhelp.org/posts/Heart-Rhythm/Magnesium-supplements—-to-avoid—how-to-take-it-and–safety/show/1002415

[xiii] http://www.livestrong.com/article/448602-which-vitamins-should-be-taken-with-other-vitamins/

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1086799/Is-Omega-3-fish-oil-supplement-good–load-old-codswallop.html

[xvi] Ibid.