The case for supplementation

It is possible to get all the vitamins and minerals we need by replacing energy dense, nutrient-poor foods and drinks with a fresh and balanced diet, not to mention innumerable other positive effects on health and well-being that cannot be provided by supplements. People who eat very few fruits and vegetables should not see supplements as a solution. Nor should taking supplements mean we don’t need to take care of our diet.

Far from being a panacea, multivitamins are best used as an adjunct to a good diet. Multivitamins are easiest and most widely available source of all the vitamins and minerals required for health. There a number of different formulations and most contain the RDI for Vitamin A, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B9, C, D3, E and K1, as well as a range of different minerals, with or without iron. This means there is less to think about, allowing us to focus on our food choices (especially lessening our calories) without being tied up in recommended intakes.

Not all micronutrients can be found in fruit and vegetables, while meat and dairy is not an option for many. A regular multivitamin takes up the slack.

If it is not possible to eat a variety of healthy foods (e.g. special diets, food intolerance/allergies) or if we have restricted our calorie intake to the point where our nutrient intake falls, then dietary supplements can be an important way to maintain optimal levels.

Many essential nutrients are not stored in the human body and must be replenished every day. While establishing and maintaining a healthy diet solves this issue, sometimes we need a little help. Let’s be realistic, multivitamins are the most practical way to cover all our bases today and offer increased freedom for making eating choices, without having to chase the RDI every day.

Supplementation for when we are under stress

Multivitamins also provide cover for times of extra need. For example, multivitamins are widely used the day-after a night of excess, when our B vitamins are depleted while metabolizing alcohol and passing more urine.  The same can be said about the aging body, which needs more help to get the job done. Equally increased levels of activity also have additional nutritional requirements for its benefits to be fully realized.

Some argue that only people with an established deficiency should take supplements. However, waiting for this deficiency to occur is like waiting to become unwell before doing something about it. In some cases, like that of low B12 levels, by the time we realise we are deficient, the adverse effects may be permanent. Preventative approaches are a much better alternative than simply reactive ones. And again regular multivitamins are the most straightforward means for prevention.

The current evidence suggests that regular supplementation with one or a range of different vitamins and minerals in motivated individuals without deficiency has no overall benefits in preventing cancer, heart disease or other age-related phenomena. But this does not mean multivitamins can’t work to maintain quality of life, health and well-being. Every woman knows how lethargic she feels when her iron stores are low. No trial has shown that iron supplements make women live longer or prevent cancer, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work. The same may be said for multivitamin supplements.  Even though nutritional supplements have not been proven to slow the aging process or extend life, there is enough scientific evidence to support that they might have this ability, particular when are diets provide inadequate supplies. Who has the time to wait and see whether generational studies will show what we have been missing?

Last Reviewed 02/Mar/2014

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Dr Merlin Thomas

Professor Merlin Thomas is Professor of Medicine at Melbourne’s Monash University, based in the Department of Diabetes. He is both a physician and a scientist. Merlin has a broader interest in all aspects of preventive medicine and ageing. He has published over 270 articles in many of the worlds’ leading medical journals

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