Are supplements actually doing you harm?


Supplements: wonder drug or waste of money? Accredited nutritionist Caitlin Reid discusses the pros and cons of supplements.

Three out of four Australians take at least one supplement and every year at least one exciting new supplement hits the market. Supplements aren’t intended to be a food substitute as they don’t and can’t replicate all of the nutrients and benefits of whole foods, yet their popularity is forever growing. The reason for this may lie in the fact that people are more health conscious and are looking for ways to slow the ageing process. There’s also the growing fear of our soil being nutrient depleted and nutrition consequences of processing and cooking food.

Generally, if you eat a variety of whole foods, supplements may not be worth the expense, as most health experts agree supplements should not be a substitute for food. Supplements work in isolation, while food has a complex source of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, all working together to maintain and boost health.

In the US, a 2010 Congressional investigation of herbal supplements found trace amounts of lead, mercury and other heavy metals in nearly all products tested, plus many illegal health claims made by supplement manufacturers.

However if you can’t eat enough whole foods or have certain conditions such as anaemia or osteoporosis, you may benefit from taking a dietary supplement. The important thing to remember is to know what is in the supplements you take and to not take excess. While excess water-soluble vitamins are excreted, fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the body and can be hazardous in large amounts.

If you do decide to take a supplement, follow these tips:

  • Consult your doctor: Talk to your doctor before you start taking supplements and work out which ones are appropriate for you and in what amounts. Be sure to ask about possible side effects and interactions with other medications.

  • Check the label: Read the label on the supplement packet carefully so that you know what is in the supplement(s) you are taking. Important things to look at include the active ingredient, the nutrients included, the serving size and the amount of nutrients in each serving.

  • Avoid megadoses: Only take the suggested serving size and avoid taking multiple supplements containing the same nutrients. Excess intake can lead to toxicity.

  • Check expiry dates: Supplements can lose potency over time, especially if not stored correctly. Discard any supplements past their expiry date.

  • Stick to reputable brands: Stick to the brands that have a good name as international research shows that many supplements can in fact contain ingredients that are not declared on the labels.

  • Be careful of mixing medicines: If you take prescription medications or have health conditions, ask your doctor if the supplement you are considering is safe for you.

Your say: What are your thoughts on health supplements?

Related stories