For many of us, the idea of taking supplements can be quite daunting. There are so many to choose from, with differing doses and an abundance of conflicting messages, not only on the internet but also from dietitians, nutritionists and medical professionals. Who do we believe and are supplements really worth taking?
But first, before we get into it, what counts as a supplement? According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the official definition of dietary supplement is “a product taken orally that contains one or more ingredients (such as vitamins or amino acids) that are intended to supplement one’s diet and are not considered food.”  Supplementation encompasses everything from vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, protein powders, CBD products, probiotics and much more. In the true sense of the word, supplements are only meant to “supplement” your diet not necessarily replace food, but fill in the gaps of what may be lacking.
There are many reasons people may need to supplement besides poor eating habits. Although some may disagree with me, I very much think that taking supplements is important for most people and can really improve the general well being of many people’s lives, allowing them to feel better, optimize their athletic performance, potentially live longer and even help prevent certain diseases. Here are some of my thoughts:
My Personal Experience
Like many women, I have iron deficiency anemia which came as a bit of a surprise to me when I was diagnosed. As a nutritionist, who has counselled others on their diet and taught nutrition education classes, I thought I had a well-balanced diet, full of all the nutrients that are required to keep me healthy. But after months of feeling tired, sore, waking up with massive bruises on my legs and feeling dizzy every time I would go for a run, I knew something was out of balance. Adding an iron supplement to my daily routine has, without exaggeration, changed my life, allowing me to live an active life without feeling tired and weak.
Even if not medically necessary, supplements can also significantly improve our quality of being. Here are some other reasons why taking supplements may be advantageous:
- Age - Different stages of your life will require more of certain nutrients than others. Children, older adults and pregnant women, in particular, need extra nutrition. Many pregnant women take folic acid supplements, need extra protein and also are advised to take a multivitamin. Older adults often require extra calcium, Vitamin B12, potassium, fibre and probiotics, among others. Many parents, who have picky eaters at home know all too well that sometimes they have no other option than to offer their children a multivitamin just to ensure they are getting all the nutrients they need to grow, play and be healthy. At these ages, sometimes your diet is simply not enough.
- Exercise - Everyone knows that the more you move your body, the more calories you need. This is also true for nutrients. Athletes require a lot more nutrients to keep them going, especially protein and carbs. I used to think that protein powders were only for gym rats or bodybuilders, but they also can be important for everyday active people, especially vegetarians or vegans. Even though I'm not an athlete, I exercise daily and now mix a Plant Based Protein into my yogurt every morning to ensure I start each day out with an extra boost of nutrition.
- Lifestyle Factors - There are certain lifestyle factors, such as smoking, alcohol consumption, or having high levels of stress that can alter the amounts of certain nutrients that we need. For example, high alcohol consumption will deplete the B Vitamins, Vitamin C and most minerals; and stress can reduce all nutrients, especially the B Vitamins. As well, if you suffer from certain allergies, infections or medications, you may need more of certain nutrients to prevent deficiencies and restore imbalance.
- Modern Processing & Soil Depletion - Most food that we eat is just not as nutritious as it used to be. Nearly every type of food processing reduces the number of nutrients found in food. For example, it is estimated that 75% of B Vitamins, minerals and fibre are removed from many of the grains we eat, to make flour, bread and pasta. Additionally, modern agriculture techniques often treat the soil with fertilizer and other pesticides that strip it of its richness and nutrients. On top of this, it is estimated that these harmful chemicals may encourage the growth of free radicals in our bodies in which the addition of antioxidants in supplemental form is even more necessary.
- Longevity- No matter how healthy your diet is, the modern diet, even a super healthy modern diet, has not been shown to significantly increase the longevity of human life. Supplements, however, could change this. Currently, there have been hundreds of studies that look at how specific nutrients may prolong human life. One antioxidant, in particular, that is attracting a lot of attention lately is resveratrol. Resveratrol is an antioxidant found in the skins of grapes and berries and red wine also contains high amounts. Research has shown that resveratrol can activate certain genes that can prolong the lifespan by preventing many diseases that are involved with ageing. However, the amounts found in the food we eat, such as a handful of grapes or a glass of wine, are not enough to show improvements. That’s where supplementation can be beneficial and a super exciting area of research to follow! By pin-pointing what specific nutrients show significant health benefits, we can use them for optimum health and to potentially increase the longevity of life.
A Word of Caution
Some supplements, especially if taken with other medications can have side effects or be dangerous if you have certain health conditions. For example, smokers should not take extra Vitamin A, as it has been linked to increased lung cancer. As well, certain nutrients can be toxic if taken in high amounts, for instance, taking too much Vitamin E could lead to stroke or bleeding in the brain. Before taking any supplements, it’s always best to talk to your doctor or health care provider to ensure that you are taking what’s safe for your body.
Multivitamins, botanicals, powders, and antioxidants all offer us something extra that our diets don’t have or often don’t have enough of. Supplements are not intended to be a replacement of food, but instead to give us an extra nutritional boost to help us feel better, live longer and ward of disease.
Kirstin Berrington is an AURA Team member with a passion for all things nutrition and health. As a nutritionist, she is equipped with a B.Sc. in Human Nutritional Sciences to help answer all your food-related questions.