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Do you really need dietary supplements?

Foods provide bioactive compounds and fibre that aren’t found in supplements, while some supplements don’t allow for full absorption of vitamins. Why then are we so dependent on them? 

There’s also a placebo effect to taking supplements
There’s also a placebo effect to taking supplements (iStock)

If you're one of the millions of people who take a vitamin or other micronutrient supplement every day, you're not alone. 

Just a few days back, someone sent me a photo asking if they should take this supplement because it's supposedly excellent for anti-ageing and, more importantly, everyone in her social circle was taking it. I’ve never endorsed or promoted any supplement, and neither will I do so in the future. With a boom in nutrition-focused products, there is a lot of hype over supplements and everyone wants to hop on to the bandwagon. Unfortunately, many companies sell supplements by falsely marketing them as “natural” and “healthy”, while the truth is majority of the supplements available in the market today are synthetic in nature. 

Foods provide many bioactive compounds and dietary fibre that typically aren’t found in supplements. And some supplements don’t allow for full absorption of vitamins. There’s also a placebo effect to taking supplements. People will feel healthier if they believe they are doing something for their health.

Also read: The boom in nutrition

Let me guess: you are now wondering whether supplements such as Vitamin D or B12 are also unnecessary. Well, only if your needs are not met through your dietary routine and if there is an excess deficiency then we advise you to take them, otherwise it is not necessary. We propose that you just take supplements until your body has reached the needed level, and then reduce your dependency on these pills by leading a healthier lifestyle.

Supplements such as Vitamin D and B-12 have no or negligible side-effects but that doesn’t mean that we consider them a necessity. It's not like if you're taking Vitamin D supplements, you should avoid sitting in the sun, or if you're taking Vitamin B-12, you should avoid soil-based food items—because that's where the majority of the natural vitamins come from.

Supplements are popular, even though there is no strong evidence that they provide substantial health advantages. So, why do so many people take supplements if the health advantages for the average, healthy individual are small or nonexistent? One reason is the supplements industry is known to make misleading claims to fuel business. This is also because of lack of stringent regulations and policies. You can’t be sure that the ingredient list on a product is actually a part of the content.

On one side we have people wanting to get the required nutrition through an easy-to-take pill, and on the other side, the industry uses emotional advertising and branding techniques to showcase their products as ‘magical’.

The major issue is that the health sector treats food as fashion, creating so-called newer and healthier food options. Every other day, there is a new buzz about a new vitamin or health product. One of the beliefs I have always held is that “the more you run away from nature, the more it will pursue you.” Real, unprocessed food is always preferable.

So, go ahead and decide for yourself whether you truly require these supplements or not. 

Also read: Avoid these five nutrition mistakes

Watch out for part 2 of this article ‘Should you be taking collagen supplements for healthy ageing?’ tomorrow.  Lavleen Kaur is co-founder and head dietitian, Diet Insight, a nutrition and diet clinic based in Chandigarh

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