Why is food sometimes not enough?
Ideally, we want to be taking a ‘food first’ approach to our nutrition. This means, we get enough nutrients through our diet to live optimally. By eating a range of fresh fruit and veg, oily fish, occasional servings of red meat, some dairy, beans, pulses, nuts, seeds - this should be satisfactory for most people.
However, there are a few challenges we face today which may mean we are lacking in some nutrients:
Sadly, food quality isn’t quite as good as it perhaps should be. Mounting evidence shows that many fruits, vegetables, and grains grown today carry less protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin, and vitamin C than those that were grown decades ago. Farming methods have changed to yield more crops in quicker times and in less space; the quality of soil and the nutrients it contains has drastically declined, leaving poorer quality produce.
Standard meat (non organic) has a lot less omega 3, ‘good fat’, than meat which was reared decades ago. Much of this is down to cost; animals are fed corn rather than grass to make them grow quicker ready for slaughter. But the quality of meat is poorer on a corn diet.
In the UK, it’s estimated that over 56% of the total calories the average person consumes is from processed foods. Processed foods overall are lacking in any nutrition, and often have detrimental sugar and fat derivatives added to make them tastier and last longer.
Even the odd processed food here and there is a missed opportunity for the body to receive real, nourishing foods. Commonly consumed processed foods include cereals, ready meals, biscuits, chocolates, sweets, crisps, processed meats, flavoured yogurts etc.
What does supplementing mean
Supplementing means the addition of an extra element to the body. We can ‘boost’ or ‘top up’ our intake of a specific nutrient. This can absolutely benefit if you are lacking, and perhaps you have symptoms which indicate this.
Here are some examples of when supplementation may be of benefit:
- different life stages can be more demanding on the body for certain nutrients, so taking a specific supplement can be of benefit e.g. pre and post pregnancy, menopause support, before and after an operation to aid healing, during and after a virus or illness to support the body’s immune system, to support a major physical challenge in your life such as a marathon etc.
- There are many ‘diets’ out there now which may benefit people - but its really important that the diet is considered for any ‘shortfalls’ of nutrients before undertaking it for too long. For example, if you are vegan or vegetarian, consider whether you are getting enough iron, zinc, B vitamins? If you are doing any low carb diet, are you getting enough fibre?
- If you have been taking antibiotics, probiotics are now a popular and positive supplement to take to restore the good gut bacteria which may have been wiped out by the medication.
Should I be taking anything?
This question should always be answered in light of your current health, diet, symptoms, conditions, medications and any allergies or intolerances.
If you have a condition or a specific need for a nutrient, always check this won’t interfere with any current medications or allergies. It's important to speak to a GP or health care professional if you have any concerns. Supplement companies can often advise on any specifics too.
There is one supplement we are all advised to take by the NHS, and thats Vitamin D in the Winter months. In the UK, we simply do not get enough from sunlight and food from about October to April. Food such as mushrooms, oily fish, egg yolk and fortified foods contain some, but it's not enough to keep levels topped up. Vitamin D is instrumental for good immune health, and for keeping bones, teeth and muscles healthy; vitamin D is needed to absorb calcium from our gut and without good levels we risk osteoporosis.
Some of us may find we are low in iron at certain times of our life. The GP may prescribe iron tablets, or we can source these ourselves. I would always advise with iron supplementation to go back again after 6 months and get your levels re-checked. I wouldn’t advise anyone to stay on iron tablets long term (unless there is a medical condition which requires this). You can purchase gentle, low dose iron supplementation from boots such as Spatone and Floradix, which may be a short term solution if your levels are low.
Other vitamins and minerals
Other ones to consider for short term use include: Magnesium - magnesium can be depleted especially if we are very active, and can help calm the body and reduce constipation. Zinc is a great boost for the immune system, as well as for a sluggish thyroid. B vitamins can provide support for better energy. Vitamin C can be used to support wound healing (it facilitates the production of collagen) and to help the body fight a cold. Sometimes a multivitamin and mineral is beneficial when you know your diet may be sub-optimal for a short period, or you are recovering from an operation to provide plenty of support for the body.
This is a type of anti-inflammatory fat which is found naturally in oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies), walnuts and chia seeds. To get a good dose, 2 - 3 portions of oily fish are recommended each week. If in situations where this can’t be achieved, it may be considered as a useful supplement to be taken periodically. It acts as an anti-inflammatory compound in the body, and this can benefit those suffering with inflammatory issues such as arthritis, sore joints, eczema, acne etc. Omega-3 is also vital for normal brain function and development; low levels of omega-3s may accelerate brain ageing and contribute to deficits in brain function. Read here for more information on omega 3.
Collagen, glucosamine, chondroitin
These can be taken periodically to support joint health. As we age, unfortunately structural components of our body can decrease in quality. Supporting the body with the materials to build and maintain joints and connective tissue can be beneficial for keeping active and moving well.
There are of course many many others, and all should be considered carefully alongside current meds and conditions - again, a healthcare professional should be able to help, or a qualified nutritionist (sometimes you can speak to one for free in a good health shop).
What are the safety concerns I should be aware of?
There are a few important safety considerations to think about when taking supplements - whether you are a first time user, or have been taking these for a while have a read to check you are safe.
Taking a supplement alongside a medication should always be checked with a GP. There are some instances when supplements can interact with medications, possibly impacting their mode of action or causing unwanted side effects, for example, Vitamin E may increase the risk of bleeding, especially if you are taking blood thinners.
There are many examples of medications reducing nutrient status in the body. For example, statins reduce our bodies stores of CoQ10, which is an important antioxidant. Acid reducing meds can decrease your body's levels of vitamin B12, calcium, magnesium, and other minerals. It may be worth asking your GP if your medication has this affect and if they recommend supplements in these cases.
Long term use
Unless advised by a health professional, I wouldn’t advise taking any supplement long term without doing some research into what the long term impacts may be. Although many vitamins and minerals sound ok to take, and are generally fine taken for short periods to support a specific need, taking these individual nutrients over a long period of time may have some implications.
For example, iron competes for absorption with copper in the gut, and so long term use of iron supplements can leave us with a copper deficiency. Taking turmeric daily can reduce our body’s absorption of iron.
What brands or type should I buy?
There are a lot of forms of different brands on the market. If you are taking supplements and want a more natural approach, there are lots of ‘food based’ brands now, which contain the nutrient found in nature, rather than produced in a lab. Often these can be absorbed much more readily and so contain lower volumes compared to synthetic compounds (which can be quite harsh on the stomach). Lovely food based brands include Will Nutrition and Terranova.
Pharmacists and nutritionist in health shops can often advise on brands if needed.
Our coaches can answer generic questions about supplementation, and can advise on how to take them safely, so please ask your coach or schedule a call if needed!