Supplements. A waste of money?

Supplements. A waste of money?

Many of us take supplements to make up for a less-than-ideal diet. But recent research suggests that we're wasting our money as they confer no real health benefits. Is it time to ditch the multivitamins?

We all know the official advice: Eat fresh food that's in season, cook from scratch, and make sure you're getting your 5-a-day. Follow these guidelines and you should get all the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients you need to protect you from all sorts of illnesses and help you to lead a happy, healthy life. But in our hectic modern lives, achieving a balanced diet can feel like an insurmountable challenge. Breakfast is a cereal bar washed down with a large café latte; lunch consists of a sandwich and a packet of crisps at your desk, and by the time you get home from work the temptation to cave in to a ready meal or a takeaway is overwhelming.

You have every reason to suspect that your diet isn't providing you with the nutrients your body needs. So it seems sensible to supplement what you're eating with a multivitamin tablet, just to be on the safe side. There's a vast range to choose from, promising all sorts of health benefits, and there's comfort in knowing that you're getting what you need, even if your diet isn't ideal.

Sadly, it turns out that compensating for a less than ideal diet is not that simple. An article published in the Annals of Internal Medicine last month suggests that supplements are a waste of money and could do more harm than good. So do we have to stop looking for shortcuts when it comes to consuming a healthy diet?

About the study

Researchers from the University of Warwick and the John Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore reviewed three major research papers to examine the effects of taking supplements. The studies incorporated more than half a million people in total. They found that taking supplements did not reduce mortality overall. Nor did it have any beneficial effects on cognitive decline or heart disease. The researchers concluded that, not only do supplements not have any demonstrable health benefits – they might actually cause harm.

It was argued that the widespread perception of having an inadequate diet has been directly manufactured by the producers of supplements. In other words, however unhealthy your diet might seem to you, you're probably getting the nutrients you need and shouldn't let people bent on selling you a product convince you otherwise.

The NHS largely concurred with these findings, stating that, with the exception of folic acid for women who are hoping to conceive a baby and vitamin D for children under the age of 5, supplements would provide an unnecessary surplus of vitamins and minerals to the average diet.

Five ways to boost your diet without resorting to supplements

Any advice about alternatives to supplements needs to take into account that they are often a quick fix for people who simply don't feel like they have the time to eat more healthily. So it's not much use being told to cook everything from scratch and spend hours wandering around our local farmers' market buying local seasonal produce, however good for our health that may be. We need options that are going to be just as quick and convenient as supplements, but with real health benefits. It is in this spirit that we offer the five tips below.

  • Drink more water. Nothing beats keeping your body well hydrated, and downing a glass of water takes almost no time at all. Tap water is fine but you can branch out into herbal teas if you like, and even tea and coffee count towards your daily fluid intake.
  • Eat a handful of nuts. Not only will the high protein content fill you up, but they're a packed with vitamins and minerals. Replace your daily packet of crisps with nuts, have a handful at breakfast, or keep them to hand for that afternoon energy slump. It takes minimal effort and your body will thank you for it.
  • Grab an apple. Or a pear. Or some carrot sticks. Having fresh fruit and veg for snacks or at breakfast takes minimal preparation and is cheap and convenient, so that you'll reach your 5 a day with hardly any effort.
  • Get outside for ten minutes. Yes, it's all about our friend vitamin D, not to mention the general feel-good factor of a bit of fresh air. A bit of sunlight on your face and hands can achieve results that capsule manufacturers can only dream of.

Supplements: The end of the story?

It certainly sounds like this is one of the final nails in the coffin for the supplements industry. But is it likely to have an effect on the behaviour of the average consumer? Do you take supplements? Which ones? Are you going to change what you're taking on the basis of this study?

 

Comments

Trevor D.
5 February 2014

Trevor D.

I don't have the statistical background to examine the studies that Kevin references in that much detail. However where is the evidence that scientific academics are 'leftist' and 'have resentments towards the private sector'? This devalues research with no evidence. Incidentally I've never taken supplements and can't remember when I last had a cold, certainly not since I stopped associating with crowds of small children. :-)

Kevin K.
4 February 2014

Kevin K.

People in general do not get enough nutrients. You provide advice at the end to eat nuts, apples, etc.--you are suggesting that they supplement their existing diet with other foods which contain nutrients. If the foods contain nutrients, it is clear that this could be provided by supplements containing those nutrients, so your argument is week. You would have to show that a supplement with a concentrated form of the nutrient would not be as effective as a food with the nutrient, and none of the studies referenced were that logical or detailed. To be frank, there are a host of micro-nutrients which a healthy body can benefit from. The studies you reference attempt to make broad claims about thousands of supplements and multivitamin pills. The studies themselves have caveats, for example: "Two large trials (n = 27 658) reported lower cancer incidence in men taking a multivitamin for more than 10 years (pooled unadjusted relative risk, 0.93 [95% CI, 0.87 to 0.99]). The study that included women showed no effect in that group. High-quality studies (k = 24; n = 324 653) of single and paired nutrients (such as vitamins A, C, or D; folic acid; selenium; or calcium) were scant and heterogeneous and showed no clear evidence of benefit or harm. Neither vitamin E nor β-carotene prevented CVD or cancer, and β-carotene increased lung cancer risk in smokers." I am a supplement taker, and have no vested interest in the field of supplements. I have taken vitamin C for 2 decades, and find I have fewer colds than others, and have been very healthy. There are other, new supplements being developed. The leftist-biased academic world has vested interests of its own, and resentments towards those in the private sector for political/emotional reasons. Thus their government-funded studies have to be taken with a grain of salt, especially when they attempt to smear "all supplements", without a substantial causal foundation for their broad generalizing.

Tanith A.
4 February 2014

Tanith A.

I'm so glad to see mainstream media picking up on this. 99% of the supplements industry is a scam designed to prey on our fears that our diet is inadequate. Who was it who said "Eat real food. Mostly plants. Not too much."?? It's simple but completely true.

Emma C.
4 February 2014

Emma C.

Omega fish oils may have lots of benefits for women, but for men they can increase the risk of prostate cancer. If you take too much of a supplement it's just not natural. If you get what you can from food then your body knows how to deal with it.

Tanya M.
3 February 2014

Tanya M.

If you recognise holes in your own diet then what's the problem with a supplement occasionally? I'm not a fan of multivitamins but know that Omega3s are absent from my diet so take these supplements regularly.

Matthew C.
1 February 2014

Matthew C.

I always remember my PE teacher telling us not to take supplements because they make our bodies rely on them. Then if we stop taking them, our bodies can't take them from food so efficiently. Not sure how scientific this is, but it put me off taking vitamins. I've never taken anything, get everything I need from a healthly diet, and have probably saved hundreds of pounds!

Trevor D.
31 January 2014

Trevor D.

the article notes that vitamin D is still recommended for children under 5 - light levels in the UK are too low in the winter to allow the body to make vitamin D, and too many kids now spend too much time indoors in the summer so they aren't making enough then. Apart from that and folic acid for pregnant women - no-one healthy who eats properly needs supplements. Learn to cook and eat food, tastes better and is cheaper!

Joseph M.
31 January 2014

Joseph M.

Health Visitors are still telling us our kids need Vitamin D supplements due to our diets and there is an increase in rickets across the UK. I know it's a bit different but it doesn't paint a good picture of our society that we don't eat enough nutritious, vitamin-packed food that we actually NEED some supplements.

Elizabeth N.
31 January 2014

Elizabeth N.

Totally agree with this article. You should get all your nutrition from your diet - none should to take supplements esp. as you can get such a variety of fruit and veg all year round these days.

Richard H.
31 January 2014

Richard H.

Hmmm. I take a multi vitamin and I swear I don't get ill as often as I did before.

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