Should we take nutritional supplements?
Originally published in Inspired 55+ Lifestyle Magazine, January 2020
Diet plays a major role in healthy aging. But can nutritional supplements boost our health more?
Most sources agree supplements aren’t necessary when eating healthfully. But supplements can have a place in a healthy diet – ideally, while still prioritizing nutritious foods. Supplements are advised if you lack a nutrient and can’t derive it from food.
We all have unique nutrition needs, due to genetics, lifestyle choices, and our environment. There are also differing needs during pregnancy or in our senior years, and in conditions like osteoporosis, digestive problems, even injury recovery.
Therefore, some people can benefit from dietary supplements, even if used short term. But any supplement regimen should be designed for your personal health status – there is no one-size-fits-all protocol. Our individuality is why, for example, glucosamine (used for joint pain) doesn’t work for everyone. Similarly, attributing nutrients with special functions – like vitamin A for eyesight – isn’t accurate: you may be getting plenty of vitamin A, yet have poor eyesight due to lack of vitamin C or E.
Supplements are intended to supplement foods – not replace them. Many of us just need to eat better. Consuming more refined, nutrient-depleted foods than whole foods and/or having very little variety in food choices, can severely limit nutrient intake. Cultures with long, healthy life spans (like the Okinawans) eat a wide variety of whole foods without using supplements, showing food can provide the nutrients humans need.
Nutrients (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, etc.) are the “tools” we need to function. Food provides these tools in ways we do not fully understand. We continue to learn how they function and interact with each other. And we haven’t discovered all of them. Therefore, there’s no guarantee your multivitamin/mineral provides all the nutrients you need – or that the nutrients will work synergistically as they do within a food. A vitamin C-rich orange also provides other nutrients to help you absorb the vitamin C. Not so with a vitamin C pill.
Many studies have explored the efficacy of nutrition supplements, but we remain unsure for several reasons: The studies aren’t long enough to reach a definitive conclusion; our individuality creates many confounding variables; and nutrition is still a young science. We continue to learn – and debunk what we learned in the past.
A 2019 study on dietary supplements, reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine(11), found supplements did not extend life and may be harmful in large quantities. Studies aren’t always conclusive – particularly regarding the young science of nutrition – but the researchers made the same general observation as hundreds of other studies: dietary supplements are not a substitute for a healthful, balanced diet.
But shouldn’t we take supplements because soil is nutrient-depleted?
That depends on your source; even the experts can’t agree. The Journal of Food Composition and Analysis(3) reports the allegations of nutrient-depleted soil are unfounded. Yet other scientists (17, 18, 19) claim soil today is degraded, decreasing the nutrients in plants. But is the soil depleted everywhere? Does a study showing poor soil in one area reflect the soil conditions worldwide? Many botanists say plants wouldn’t grow properly without the soil nutrients they require (and vegetables today still resemble vegetables of 50 years ago). The increase of organic and other regenerative farming methods can maintain and regenerate soil fertility(16). And despite soil conditions, plants will always offer vital properties – particularly fibre.
Can we fix a poor diet with pills?
Supplement advocates also warn our modern diet doesn’t provide all the nutrients we need. But that’s likely because many people make unhealthy food choices(2). Therefore, we should make better choices. Taking pills won't fix a poor diet.
However, older adults in particular may want to consider supplementation. As we age, our bodies may develop challenges absorbing some nutrients. Seniors may become less efficient absorbing vitamin B12 and they may produce less vitamin D from the sun than younger adults. Incidentally, have your blood tested for vitamin D levels before self-prescribing large doses. Vitamin D overdose is as harmful as a deficiency; likewise with other nutrient pills.
Population studies find seniors often lack certain nutrients – although usually from inadequate diets. Common deficiencies among older adults may also include folate, fibre, protein, calcium, potassium, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids and water. If you are deficient in any of these, alter your diet. But if, for some reason, you can’t obtain or absorb these nutrients via food, supplementation may be necessary. Consult a Registered Dietitian(10)
or other specialist trained in nutrition science.
Choose variety along with quality in your foods . . .
To boost your nutrients, a wide variety of foods offers a wider variety of nutrients (be cautious with diets that omit certain foods or food groups). Another nutrition-boosting tip: Choose foods as whole and unrefined as possible because the more a food is refined (changed), the more nutrients are lost.
Should you take supplements? That’s up to you and your health professional. You are a unique individual with unique needs. However, always prioritize food and healthy habits over taking pills.
A former newspaper reporter and editor, Eve Lees has also been active in the health & fitness industry since 1979. Currently, she is a Freelance Health Writer for several publications and speaks to business and private groups on various health topics. www.artnews-healthnews.com
1. Canadian diet: Average Canadian eats few vegetables and high fat https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/82-003-x/2006004/article/habit/4148989-eng.htm
2. Canadian diet high in ultra-processed foods
SOURCES about supplements:
10. Find a Registered Dietitian (RD) in Canada
11. Supplements not effective in strenthening the immune system and some may be harmful
SOURCES who believe soil is not depleted:
11. Report from the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis
13. Soil is not degraded
14. Are minerals in soil depleted?
SOURCES supporting the soil depletion belief: