Nutritional Supplements – are they worth taking?

Nutritional Supplements – are they worth taking?

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Nutritional supplements are big business.

According to the Health Food Manufacturers Association, here in the UK, we’re spending over £414 million every year on them. At least 65% of all adults take some form of vitamin supplement either daily or occasionally (1).

From this, it appears we’re concerned we’re not getting enough nutrients from our diet.

Every now and again, news stories or TV programmes come along criticising supplements, saying they’re a waste of money and give us ‘expensive pee’.

Why would we need to take vitamins and minerals if we’re already eating a healthy, balanced diet?

Are they a comforting insurance against ill-health, or an antidote to a less than healthy diet and lifestyle?

Or are they just a waste of money?

Let’s have a look at the facts.

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Modern Food is Grown Differently

It’s a sad fact the fruit and vegetables eaten by our great-grandparents were more nutrient-dense than the food we eat today.

The first reason for this is the nutritional value of a plant is only as good as the soil it grows in.

Several long-term studies show startling declines in the mineral content of UK soil over the years, particularly in calcium, magnesium, iron and copper.

In days gone by, fields were left fallow every so often, allowing their nutrient content to restore.

Often, this no longer happens.

Unless mineral content is restored between crops, each season’s crop contains fewer nutrients than the one grown previously.

Secondly, intensive agriculture is geared towards high crop yield.

Although modern plants may grow taller faster, their nutrient quality suffers as a result – a real case of quantity over quality.

New crop varieties have been developed to have not only faster growth, but also to be more resistant to pests and climatic variations.

Unfortunately for us, the ability of these crops to take up or synthesise nutrients hasn’t kept pace with the speed of their growth.

Increased yield comes about from the accumulation of carbohydrate, but there tends to be no accompanying increase in other nutrients.

One analysis of government food nutrient tables from 1940 and 1991 (2) showed vegetables, in general, contained 24% less magnesium and 27% less iron, while fruits had 16% less calcium.

It’s not just plant foods which are affected.

Animals eating these crops have meat which is depleted in minerals in much the same way.

Analysis of food tables between 1940 and 2002 showed iron levels in rump steak had dropped by 55%, while the iron content of milk had dropped by more than 60%.

Milk had also lost 21% of its magnesium.

The nutrient loss is probably also connected with intensive farming methods.

Another study of UK data between 1930 and 1980 reported in Scientific American (3) found the average calcium content in 20 vegetables had declined 19 percent; iron 22 percent; and potassium 14 percent.

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Modern Food is Produced Differently


Processing food has one major aim – to improve its shelf life.

During processing, unstable nutrients like essential fats are removed, otherwise, they would impair the shelf life of the food.

Even if we stick to unprocessed food, fruit and vegetables are often picked before they’re ripe, meaning they’re unable to reach their full nutrient potential.

Much of our food has taken hundreds of miles and many days to reach us. It may then stay on a supermarket shelf for a further period of time. In fact, many months may elapse between harvesting and eating. In that time nutrient levels naturally, deplete.

With all this in mind, it’s a wonder there are any nutrients at all left in our food by the time it reaches our fork.

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We Live Different Lives

Our lifestyles have also changed dramatically since our grandmothers’ time. We’re now constantly on the go, stressed and busy.

With our phones in our hands practically all the time, we’re bombarded almost 24/7 with things demanding our attention.

This means not only are many of us are time poor. We lack the time to sit down to eat and so eat on the go, and this can also mean we don’t digest what we eat too well. A stressed digestive system doesn’t work effectively.

Added to this, leading a stressful busy life actually requires more nutrients.

The production of our stress hormone cortisol needs extra B vitamins as well as Vitamin C.

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We are Depleted

It’s now becoming evident as a nation we are depleted in many essential nutrients.

The recent UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey concluded large proportions of UK adults may not be consuming enough vitamins and minerals because the Government’s healthy diet guidelines are not being followed.

The survey found only 31% of adults, 32% of 65-74 year-olds and an alarming 8% of teenagers meet the (nutrient-depleted) Five A Day recommendation for fruit and vegetables.

Average fibre intake in adults was just 19g per day, well below the recommended 30g per day (4).

Recommended Daily Amounts of vitamins and minerals have been developed by Governments all over the world to avoid deficiency diseases like rickets, scurvy and so on.

They are literally the minimum amount of a nutrient required to stay healthy.

But it seems we’re often not consuming even these baseline amounts.

According to Oregon State University, a recent survey of magnesium intake found most adult Americans consume less than the recommended daily intake (5).

Authors of one research review study published in the British Medical Journal (6) concluded most people need an additional 300 mg of magnesium per day in excess of the recommended daily allowance in order to avoid the risk of developing numerous chronic diseases.

That’s the amount of magnesium in over 50 almonds, incidentally.

We’ve now established not only is our food different to how it used to be, and our lifestyles mean we need more nutrients, so we’re becoming deficient.

Is the argument for nutritional supplements winning?

The next question to ask is, do supplements actually work?

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All Supplements are not Created Equal

Vitamins and minerals in supplement form need to be complexed with other substances in order to make them stable.

What they’re complexed with can make it easier or harder for your body to absorb.

Calcium is a good example. It’s often combined with carbonate to make calcium carbonate.

Some of you may be cursed with this stuff as it furs up your kettle or stains your bath. Limescale.

It’s also what blackboard chalk consists of. It’s fairly inexpensive to produce.

Unfortunately, it’s not so easy for the body to separate the carbonate from the calcium and some studies have found as little as 15% was absorbed (7).

Unfortunately, calcium carbonate also fairly effectively neutralises your stomach acid – it’s a key ingredient in many antacids – and you need your stomach acid to digest protein and nutrients like Vitamin B12 and zinc.

Organic forms of calcium are more easily absorbed by the body and won’t deplete your stomach acid.

Iron is another great example – it’s usually found in cheaper supplements as ferrous sulphate, which is notorious for causing constipation.

The reason? It’s very poorly absorbed and hangs about in the intestines causing mischief.

Far better is an organic form of iron such as ferrous fumarate or ferrous gluconate.

Dr. Mark Hyman of the Cleveland Clinic discusses why not all vitamins and supplements are created equal.

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Looking Behind the Science

This brings us to the often-contradictory results of several long-term studies on vitamin and mineral usage.

They’re great for headlines, especially if studies find no impact on health or longevity from taking vitamins and minerals.

Unfortunately, these studies are flawed for so many reasons.

We aren’t told in what form the nutrients were.

If people took poorly absorbed forms of nutrients, it wouldn’t be surprising if they didn’t see too much of a benefit.

We don’t know what levels they were taking, or whether they were deficient in any other nutrients, or already had any health problems.

The diets eaten by the participants can’t be controlled, so it’s impossible to separate the effects of diet from those of the nutrients.

We don’t know if the participants were stressed, if they smoked, or whether they exercised.

It’s also as well to be aware of how research studies are funded.

Some are funded by food or pharmaceutical companies, who may not have a vested interest in demonstrating nutritional supplements are effective in preventing health problems.

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We all Need Different Nutrients

Functional medicine believes since we’re all unique, each one of us will have varying nutrient requirements.

Recommended daily amounts don’t take into account our individual differences.

For example, one person may suffer from IBS which impedes their absorption of zinc.

So this person would need a higher dose of zinc than someone with a healthy digestive system.

Elderly people may need more B12 because their stomach acid production has decreased.

Someone who suffers from heavy periods will need additional iron. Other people may take medical drugs which deplete certain nutrients.

Yet others may be on a restrictive diet, maybe owing to food sensitivities.

All these people may benefit from a supplement because of their specific health pictures.

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Supplements are Just That – Supplements

Let’s also remember supplements aren’t a panacea or some sort of shortcut to better health.

They certainly don’t replace a healthy diet.

A varied diet chock-full of whole, nutritious, unprocessed foods should always be the starting point.

But supplements they can help to cover nutritional gaps in our diet.

Perhaps you don’t need a supplement if you only eat fresh, unprocessed, organic food grown in nutrient-rich soils, produced locally and eaten shortly after harvesting; if we aren’t stressed, drink pure water and breathe clean air, have enough sleep, exercise daily and avoid all environmental chemicals and pollutants.

Do all these apply to you?

As thousands of research studies demonstrate, supplements are neither magic pills or useless, but are valuable tools which can be used to support health.



The mind-boggling amount of information about what constitutes a healthy diet and which supplements are beneficial can be confusing.

If you’re looking to Change for Good, a consultation with an Amchara Practitioner can help to recommend the most appropriate healthy eating plan for your circumstances.


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