In recent years, the market for nutritional supplements has grown into an industry worth billions of pounds. With so many different supplements on offer and so much conflicting information regarding their effectiveness, it can be hard for consumers to make informed decisions as to whether or not to take such supplements.
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Nutritional supplements can come in tablet, capsule or liquid form and are used alongside your regular diet to help improve your health. These supplements can contain vitamins, minerals, herbs or other plants, but they serve as additions to a balanced diet, not as a replacement. They may be used for preventative purposes, or as a treatment for specific ailments such as colds. Supplements have been used for body-building, weight-loss and anti-ageing purposes.
Regulation for nutritional supplements depends on how a specific supplement is classified. Depending on the ingredients, method of use and reported effectiveness, some supplements are considered food whilst others are categorised as medicine. Those considered foods are not subject to the same strict testing procedures as medicines before being allowed on the market, but this is because they generally do not contain elements that could be harmful to health and are protected by the Food Standards Agency.
If you have any doubts about nutritional supplements, you can always consult with your GP to determine the best course of action, especially if you are taking other medicines.
Vitamin and mineral supplements
There are 13 vitamins that are needed by the human body, each with its own specific function. Eight of these are B vitamins, whilst the others are A, C, D, E and K. As the body cannot produce these vitamins itself, we rely on a balanced diet to provide them (except vitamin D, which is primarily supplied through exposure to sunlight). For certain groups of people such as pregnant women, the elderly, younger children and those with specific medical conditions, it is recommended that they take certain vitamin supplements as they are at a higher risk of deficiencies even with an appropriate diet.
Those who are not regularly exposed to sunlight, pregnant and breastfeeding women, people with darker skin and those over 65 may particularly benefit from vitamin D supplements. Children between six months and five years may benefit from a combined supplement of vitamins A, C and D. For women trying to conceive or in their first 12 weeks of pregnancy, folic acid is a recommended supplement as it can reduce the risk of birth defects.
Vitamin C is a particularly popular supplement as it is proven to have antiviral properties. Whilst it may not be a magical cold cure as it is sometimes portrayed, there is some evidence that it can reduce the likelihood or duration of a cold. Other supplements that may help with cold treatments include the mineral zinc.
Fish oil can provide omega-3 fats, which are not produced by the body and are generally found in oily fish such as tuna and mackerel. They are some of the most popular dietary supplements in the UK and evidence suggests they can help heart health and blood pressure. Their effect on cognitive function is less certain, with research producing contradictory results, but they can play a useful role in supplementing essential nutrients.
Concerns about obesity have led to weight-loss supplements increasing in popularity, but many of these are not supported by scientific evidence and in some cases can even cause more health problems. Discuss your weight-loss plans with a GP first and ensure that weight-loss supplements are not used as a substitute for a healthy diet and exercise. Provided that you do your research properly and buy from reputable suppliers, you should be able to avoid the dangerous supplements.
Popular anti-ageing supplements include ginseng, ginkgo and glucosamine. Again, the scientific research into their effectiveness has produced mixed results, but negative side effects are relatively rare.
Body-building supplements such as whey protein often seek to increase protein levels. Protein is vital to building muscle and is particularly important to athletes. Too much protein can cause health issues, particularly in the young or in other vulnerable groups such as pregnant women. Most people should easily be able to achieve recommended daily protein levels through their diet, but for those seeking to increase muscle mass, supplements could be useful.
There is wide variation in the effectiveness of nutritional supplements depending on the supplement itself and the person taking it. Evidence suggests, however, that with proper information and alongside a balanced diet, nutritional supplements can be a valuable addition to your health regimen.