3 things you should know

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By Viwe Ndongeni-Ntlebi Time of article publishedSep 9, 2020

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Be honest – when was the last time you ate your suggested five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables per day? Despite your best efforts to eat a balanced diet, you may be falling short of the recommended daily amount of certain nutrients.

Many people turn to dietary supplements to get their recommended intake of those missing nutrients.

There are so many options that sound great, but there are also so many questions: Which ones really work? Exactly how effective are they? Are they worth the money?

Jandri Barnard, a registered dietitian and Association for Dietetics in South Africa (Adsa) spokesperson, says when it comes to supplements, first look at following a healthy eating plan compiled by a dietitian.

Then add dietary supplements to your daily intake if you have a specific deficiency or if you require certain supplements seasonally to benefit your health.

Barnards says deciding whether to take dietary supplements and which ones to take is a serious decision for your health and should not be considered lightly. Rather speak to a dietitian who can help you integrate suggested supplements into your diet for a personalised plan.

However, warns Larry Appel, director of the Johns Hopkins Welch Centre for Prevention, Epidemiology and Clinical Research, “pills are not a shortcut to better health and the prevention of chronic diseases”.

“Other nutrition recommendations have much stronger evidence of benefits – eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and reducing the amount of saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and sugar you eat.”

Here are three things Barnards says you should know about taking supplements or multivitamins.

How do I know that I need to supplement?

Not everyone needs to take supplements. It is possible to get all your nutrients by eating a variety of healthy foods. Multivitamins can be useful to fill in the gaps in your diet, but you should check whether you need them in the first place or if you are deficient in a specific vitamin.

What are the essential multivitamins?

Scientific evidence suggests that some supplements can enhance your health in different ways. The most popular nutrient supplements include multivitamins, calcium, and vitamins B, C and D. Calcium supports bone health and vitamin D helps the body to absorb calcium. Vitamins C and E are antioxidants, which are molecules that prevent cell damage and help to maintain overall health.

During pregnancy women require iron, and during breastfeeding additional vitamin D is beneficial. Folic acid – 400mg daily – from supplements or fortified food is an important addition for women of childbearing age, as they usually have a deficiency.

Vitamin B12 intake is beneficial to keep nerve and blood cells healthy. Food sources include meat, fish and dairy products. Vegans may consider taking a supplement to ensure to get enough of it.

Caution on multivitamins

Some supplements may have side effects, especially if taken before surgery or together with other medicines. They should be taken with caution if you have certain chronic health problems. Supplements have also not been tested in all groups, such as children and pregnant women. An overdose of supplements, multivitamins or even only one type of vitamin, can have toxic effects. A label on a supplement may claim certain health benefits but it can’t claim to cure, treat or prevent a disease. There is little scientific research available that taking any supplement can reverse the course of any chronic disease.

For supplements, including vitamins and minerals, be sure to check the daily value (DV) percentage for each nutrient, especially in a multivitamin. It is important to consider the DV together with your food intake and avoid the upper limit, as too much of certain supplements can be harmful.

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