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Why Supplements Don’t Work

By Jacob Andreae

The dietary supplement industry is a billion dollar industry. Supplements can provide you with a sense of security against a less-than-perfect diet, and make you feel like you are giving your body all that it needs. But the truth is, this reductionist approach to food doesn’t work because food is complex. 


I get asked to sell supplements all the time! It gets annoying to say no all the time, but empowering; because I know I’m choosing decisions based on my beliefs. And my beliefs are backed by science. If the science was to say it’s beneficial and we should all be supplementing, I’d recommend it, but it doesn’t. Supplements don’t work for most people for a variety of reasons. 


It’s not what we eat, it’s how we eat. 


Food is much more than the nutrients it contains. When science began to identify and recognise the importance of the nutrients in the our food, the reductionist approach to food was born. People believed they could extract the nutrients from food and package it in a neat, easy-to-consume capsule. However, the benefits don’t necessarily come from nutrients alone.


Why Supplements Don’t Work


Food influences the uptake of the nutrients it contains. Far more nutrients enter the bloodstream when food is eaten together. This “food matrix effect” shows that food is much more complex than it just being a bunch of nutrients packed together. For example, fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin A, D, E and K need to be dissolved in fat to be transported into the blood. 


High doses of nutrients can be harmful. Water-soluble vitamins are urinated out when in excess. However fat-soluble vitamins are stored when in excess, particularly by the liver. Supplementing with multivitamins, especially if you are taking multiple at once, can easily lead to overconsumption and reaching toxic levels in the liver. 


Supplementing may be good for people with a high-energy, nutrient-poor diet. This is a “processed food” diet high in sugar, trans fat and preservatives. One argument for supplementation is that taking supplements is beneficial for these people. To me, this is crazy. This is like saying it’s okay to drink that family-sized soft drink every day so long as you pop your pill to get your nutrients. No! This is not okay! While you might be getting your nutrients in capsule form, what that high-energy, nutrient-poor food and drink is doing to your body is unhealthy, and leads to all sorts of diseases like type-2 diabetes and obesity. 


Supplement trials don’t match observational studies. People who eat a lot of fish, vegetables, whole grains and olive oil have lower rates of heart disease and dementia. However, these benefits aren’t seen in trials when the supplements containing these nutrients are tested. For example, eating fish may reduce your risk for heart disease; however, omega-3 or fish oil supplements haven’t actually been shown to reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke or early death. 


Supplement regulation and studies lack rigour. Drug companies will invest large sums of money in high-quality research because of the strict regulation to approve them. However, supplements are regulated in the same way as food, and therefore, must be safe for consumption and correctly labelled but they don’t have to prove they improve health. 


Food is much more than the nutrients it contains. As such, a reductionist approach to nutrition is simplistic and potentially dangerous. Supplementation of food can lead to undernourishment through the passing of supplements, and the nutrients they contain, straight through your body. Supplementation can also lead to overconsumption and potentially toxic levels. 


Supplementation is about supplementing an already healthy diet, and may be beneficial for some people who need it. Supplementation should be prescribed by a health professional so that it is combined in the right way in order to ensure absorption of nutrients into the bloodstream. Supplementation is never a replacement for an unhealthy diet or diet in general.  


The bottom line … Routine micronutrient supplementation of the general population is not recommended. 


What supplements have you tried? 


Leave your answer to that question in the comments section below. 


Photo by Fallon Michael on Unsplash

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