The path to a healthy lifestyle can be a long and hard road, and one component that has been touted as an integral part of that journey are health supplements. But are they really reliable companions on our journey to health and wellbeing?
The average American diet leaves a lot to be desired. Research has shown that we lack a number of essential nutrients, including calcium, potassium, magnesium, and vitamins A, C, and D. Therefore, it is not surprising that most of us rely on a vitamin supplement to get the additional nutrition we need. Furthermore, many of us take supplements not just to make up for what we’re missing, but also because we hope to give ourselves an extra health boost - a proactive way to ward off disease.
If it sounds too good to be true then it is. This axiom fits the general view of some health supplements, as getting our nutrients straight from a pill sounds easy, but supplements alone don’t necessarily deliver on the promise of better health.
Experts say there is definitely a place for vitamin or mineral supplements in our diets, but their primary function is to fill in small nutrient gaps. They are "supplements" after all, and intended to add to your diet, not take the place of real food or a healthy daily diet.
"They can plug nutrition gaps in your diet, but it is short-sighted to think your vitamin or mineral is the ticket to good health – the big power is on the plate, not in a pill," explains Roberta Anding, MS, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and director of sports nutrition at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston.
This was echoed by dietitian Karen Ansel. "Food contains thousands of phytochemicals, fiber, and more that work together to promote good health that cannot be duplicated with a pill or a cocktail of supplements."
Multivitamins have long been considered a secret weapon to aid health and prevent chronic disease. Numerous studies have shown the health benefits and effectiveness of supplementing missing nutrients in the diet. A National Institute of Health (NIH) study found increased bone density and reduced fractures in postmenopausal women who took calcium and vitamin D. A series of experiments also suggested that vitamin D can affect conditions such as diabetes, depression, and even the common cold. Omega-3 fatty acids have been touted for warding off strokes and other cardiovascular events.
Nevertheless, most “Nutritionists recommend food first because foods provide a variety of vitamins and minerals and also dietary factors that are not found in a vitamin or mineral supplement,” said Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., R.D., and Distinguished Professor of Nutrition at the Pennsylvania State University’s College of Health and Human Development.
So the consensus appears to be that vitamin and mineral supplements can help in certain situations but consumers may be better off getting these from their diet.
Are there any supplements that can complement a healthy diet and provide real nutritional and therapeutic benefits?
Probiotics are one type of health supplement that have been shown to provide real health benefits and can work in synergy with a healthy diet.
Probiotics are microorganisms that can be consumed as a health supplement or by eating certain fermented foods like yogurt. Probiotics form part of the gut microbiome and help you by improving gut health. They also help our immune system, liver function, cardiovascular health, mental health, and reduce inflammation.
Probiotics also give us important nutrients such as B vitamins, vitamin K, folate, and short-chain fatty acids. Up to 10% of our daily energy needs can be derived from the byproducts of the good bacteria in your gut. In this way, probiotics provide all that a vitamin or mineral supplement can do in a wholly natural way that can work in synergy with a healthy diet and lifestyle.
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