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Do You Actually Need a Supplement?

With a growing number of us taking a greater interest in our health, it’s probably not surprising that use of dietary supplements is on the increase. Figures from the CDC show that more than half of us take a dietary supplement, and while multivitamins and multimineral supplements are by far the most common, a large number of us are also taking single item supplements. However, do we need to take these supplements at all?

A varied diet can meet your needs

Certainly if you are in good health and eat a well-balanced diet, there is no need to take any extra vitamins and minerals. This is because a diet based on carbohydrates, fruit and vegetables with moderate amounts of protein-rich foods, dairy produce or dairy-free alternatives, and healthy fats should meet all your needs for micronutrients. If you are already getting everything that you need from your diet, taking supplements will usually not offer you any extra benefits and taking them may even do you more harm than good if you take high dose supplements.

Dangers of high dose supplements

Although it is tempting to think that a higher dose means a greater benefit, this isn’t necessarily the case when it comes to vitamin and mineral supplements. The dangers of mega-doses isn’t just scaremongering though, as there is evidence to back up the negative effects that overdosing on certain vitamins and minerals may bring. For instance, although it is often said that an antioxidant-rich diet may help to lower your risk of cancer, it seems that the same benefits are not offered when taken as a supplement, and they may even increase your risk of developing cancer. This applies to beta-carotene supplements taken by smokers, who place themselves at greater risk of lung cancer by doing so. Similarly, high doses of the antioxidants vitamin E and selenium may make you more likely to develop prostate cancer. While it’s usually hard to overdose on the water-soluble vitamins B and C, as your body excretes these beyond its needs, large amounts of vitamin C are linked to kidney stones. It’s not just overdoing vitamins that can cause a problem, as overdoing mineral supplements can also bring bad news. For example, high intake of calcium supplements make you susceptible to hardening of the arteries, as calcium is deposited within your artery walls; though the same isn’t found when you get the calcium you need from your diet.

Supplements are essential in some cases

While the majority of us can meet our micronutrient requirements through our diet alone, sometimes a supplement is necessary, but it seems that when this is the case, we aren’t aware or we don’t heed the advice. For instance, just a third of women of child-bearing age take folic acid supplements and many people at high risk of vitamin D deficiency do not supplement their intake of vitamin D. So who benefits from taking additional vitamins and minerals?

Women who are pregnant and breastfeeding

Getting enough folic acid during pregnancy can prevent certain birth defects such as spina bifida. However, it is difficult to get sufficient of this B vitamin through your diet alone, so if there is a chance you may become pregnant, you should take a daily supplement of 400μg of folic acid. This means that even if you are not actively trying to conceive you should consider the supplement, as a large proportion of pregnancies are unplanned. You also have increased vitamin D needs during both pregnancy and breastfeeding, as you not only need to support your own skeleton, but also that of your developing baby. Research suggests that 4000 IU of vitamin D offers most benefit, but check that your supplement offers at least 400 IU of the vitamin.

If you are at risk of vitamin D deficiency

Vitamin D deficiency is on the increase, but certain groups of people are at particular risk. The people at greatest risk of vitamin D deficiency are the over 65s, those who spend limited time outdoors or always cover their skin when they go out, anyone with a darker skin tone and anyone who has a BMI greater than 30. If any of these are applicable, you should start a vitamin D supplement to prevent deficiency.

If you suffer from malabsorption

A range of digestive disorders, including celiac disease, Crohn’s disease and colitis, can make it difficult for you to absorb the nutrients from your diet; if you had a gastric bypass to aid weight loss, this can also affect absorption too. For example, with celiac disease, which affects around 1% of Americans, deficiencies of vitamin A, B6, B12, zinc and iron are common. If you suffer from a condition that has malabsorption as a symptom, your doctor will usually run blood tests to find which nutrients you are deficient in and advise you on the supplements you will need.

If you follow a strict vegan diet

Although vegetarians are usually able to meet all their requirements as long as their diet is varied, if you follow a completely plant-based diet you may struggle to get enough vitamin B12. This is because vitamin B12 is not found naturally in plant produce, though it is added to a range of foods, such as breakfast cereals, milk substitutes and yeast extracts. However, to guarantee that you meet your vitamin B12 needs on a vegan diet, it is safest to take a vitamin B12 supplement. You may also find it difficult to get sufficient zinc, calcium, iron and vitamin D from a vegan diet, so unless you plan your diet to include alternative sources of these nutrients, a multivitamin and multimineral is advisable.

If you follow a low-calorie diet

Although losing excess weight offers health benefits, if you consume less than 1500Kcal daily, there is a risk that you may not get enough vitamins and minerals. A balanced vitamin and mineral supplement is therefore sensible if you follow a strict calorie-controlled diet.

However, if you are concerned that you may already have a vitamin or mineral deficiency, you should discuss this with your doctor, as they will be able to confirm through a blood test and recommend the most suitable supplement for you.

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