Supplements for a healthy diet
Due to a variety of factors, the average human being requires some form of food or nutrient supplementation throughout each stage of their life.
In theory, a well-balanced diet will provide us with adequate nutrition to sustain a healthy life. However, there are times when reaching our daily levels of required minerals, vitamins or essential nutrients can be difficult, inconvenient or unachievable and so we turn to supplements to make up the difference.
It’s a well-known fact that good nutrition supports good health but eating right is not always enough.
Nutrient deficiencies can be common even when we think we’re paying attention to what we eat, and the reasons for this are numerous. For instance, the elderly, pregnant women and people who struggle with certain medical issues are prone to being at nutritional risk or undernourished.
Also, if you’re trying to lose weight by restricting your calorie intake, you are at risk of being nutrient deficient. Other people who may be at risk are those suffering from allergies or intolerances, as well as those who limit certain food groups, like vegetarians and vegans.
What exactly are food supplements?
Food supplements represent concentrated sources of nutrients which we consume to make up for a lack of the previously mentioned nutrients or for a specific positive health outcome.
Supplements come in a variety of different forms like pills, powders, tonics and capsules. They are marketed as substitutes for various nutrients found in foods, everything from fish oils and minerals to every vitamin known to man.
One of the main reasons behind supplement use is that they often contain higher amounts of nutrients than a natural food source. However, this does not mean they contain all the nutrients found within a whole food. So, they cannot make up for a poor quality or unhealthy diet.
Proper eating habits provide more than just a few beneficial vitamins or minerals. A healthy dietary plan is the main source of energy, protein, carbohydrate, fats, fibre, enzymes and other natural composites valuable to our health. Whole foods contain nutrients that our body can absorb and utilise for normal growth and development, good health, physical activity and overall vitality.
If one component or nutrient is extracted from a whole food, processed into a pill and then later consumed as a supplement, it doesn’t always have the same effect on our body as it would when consumed in its whole food form.
Hence the name, supplements should be used to supplement a healthy diet and lifestyle. They are not a quick fix or magic pill.
What you need to know before taking supplements
If you have symptoms and are considering supplementation it’s always a good idea to consult with your doctor or an accredited practising dietitian/nutritionist. A simple blood test can often determine if you are deficient or borderline deficient in a specific nutrient. Symptoms of an underlying and undiagnosed medical condition could present as a nutrient deficiency, so it’s important not to self-diagnose. A professional opinion can help you weigh up the pros and cons of supplementation or gaps in a whole food diet that could correct the issue.
Here are a couple of other points to consider if you decide to use supplements:
Don’t believe everything you read. Sometimes companies make unrealistic claims without any evidence to back it up. If something sounds too good to be true, the chances are it probably is. We’ve already covered some of the most famous supplement myths, so be sure to check them out as well.
Never mix nutrient supplements with medications. A drug-nutrient interaction can have negative outcomes on your health. Always consult with a doctor when it comes to prescription medication.
Pay attention to your regular dietary intake or meal plan first. Be sure you eat from all five essential food groups which include:
Vegetables and legumes/beans
Grain (cereal) foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high cereal fibre varieties
Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds
Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or alternatives, mostly reduced fat
If, for any reason, you cannot include a variety of foods from these groups then it’s important to include an appropriate alternative than to avoid an option altogether and run the risk of an inadequate nutrient intake.
Try to eat very little refined sugar and highly processed foods or avoid them altogether. These foods are often nutrient-poor rather than nutrient-dense whole foods. So, fill your belly with quality whole foods that support health and wellbeing rather than sickness.
Too much of a good thing can be bad when it comes to supplements. Try not to exceed your recommended daily intake or upper limit from a supplement. Some nutrients accumulate in the body, like vitamin A, and in high doses can be toxic leading to undesirable health consequences.
Which supplements to use?
Although the choice of supplements differs based on a person’s individual circumstances, we’ve composed a list of supplements which are commonly lacking in the diet, yet are safe and affordable to incorporate into your lifestyle.
Multivitamins and minerals
As a supplement, a multivitamin is generally considered safe and proven to assist prevention of anaemias, neural tube defects (in pregnancy), osteoporosis, cataracts and some cancers1.
For general health, choose a quality supplement that contains a blend of vitamins and minerals that provides close to your Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI), and as natural as possible over synthetic ingredients.
Some nutrients complement other nutrients for absorption whereas some can compete and hinder this process. Therefore, a ‘multi’ nutrient blend is preferable to a singular nutrient supplement. Again, taking a multivitamin doesn’t excuse you from consuming adequate fruits and vegetables.
However, if you have a specific health or medical concern, choose a multivitamin or mineral blend that has the nutrients your body needs the most. For example, a female planning to fall pregnant may focus on B vitamins, iron and iodine. This process should be guided by a health professional because high-dose vitamin or nutrient blends can have negative consequences.
Creatine supplementation is commonly reserved for elite athletes or those looking for enhanced sporting performance and muscle gain. But did you know supplementing with creatine can provide benefits outside of sports nutrition and support the general health of adults and the elderly?
A systematic review of randomised controlled trials found that creatine supplementation can improve short-term memory as well as intelligence and reasoning of healthy individuals2.
It has been suggested in scientific literature that creatine can delay muscle loss in the elderly, independent of exercise. It can also have a positive effect on endurance, muscular strength and bone strength in ageing3.
Learn more about the benefits of creatine in our in-depth article, All You Need to Know About Creatine Powder.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential components of polyunsaturated fats found in concentrated amounts in cold-water fatty fish like salmon. Omega-3 supplements, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), have been studied for their positive effects on the brain and cardiovascular system, muscular performance and recovery from injury. Cognitive improvements following DHA/EPA supplementation have been noted in several studies with populations ranging from healthy older adults to those with mild cognitive impairment, to Alzheimer’s patients4.
It’s a well-known fact that consuming a high-protein diet assists muscle growth. Less known is the fact that you need to consume adequate protein regularly across the day, and not just after a workout. However, not all of us have the luxury of carefully planning each meal and adjusting it in accordance with our work and training schedule. That is why protein supplements play such an important role in our daily routine. Whether in the form of a powder or protein bar, these supplements are convenient to carry, taste delicious and are easy to ingest. Convenience foods can be healthy with a little planning.
True Protein Sample Packs are perfect for an on-the-go protein hit to stop you reaching for a chocolate bar.
Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin essential for normal nervous system function, DNA synthesis and homocysteine metabolism. It is found in foods primarily from animal origins. Due to an avoidance of animal and dairy products, vegans and vegetarians are at an increased risk of developing vitamin B12 (cobalamin) deficiency. A deficiency can cause megaloblastic anaemia and can be detrimental to your health long-term, but a dietary supplement or regular B12 injection can be a simple solution5.
According to the Gastroenterological Society of Australia, iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide. Depletion of iron stores and iron deficiency occur in all age groups, particularly in children, women after the onset of menstruation, elderly, vegetarians and vegans.
Iron is essential for the transportation of oxygen to our brain, organs and muscles. Symptoms of an iron deficiency can include a tendency to bruise easily, feel fatigued, weak and have trouble concentrating.
A condition called haemochromatosis can sometimes have similar symptoms, but this condition is from an iron overload, so it’s very important to consult with your doctor first to assess your iron status if you suspect a deficiency, rather than starting supplementation on your own. Supplementation is commonly recommended for medically diagnosed iron deficiency anaemia.
We know good nutrition supports good health. Despite the plethora of nutritional supplements available, focus on building strong foundations with healthy eating and lifestyle practices.
Diversity in your diet can provide your body with all the essential nutrients it needs. So, include a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins into your diet.
Sometimes we have a specific fitness goal or medical issue where nutritional supplements can be helpful. Keep in mind that supplements, just as their name suggests, should be used only to supplement an already balanced whole food diet and active lifestyle.
Ward E. Addressing nutritional gaps with multivitamin and mineral supplements. Nutrition Journal. 2014;13:72. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-13-72.
Avgerinos, Konstantinos I. Spyrou, Nikolaos Bougioukas, Konstantinos I. Kapogiannis, Dimitrios. Effects of creatine supplementation on cognitive function of healthy individuals: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Experimental Gerontology. Volume 108, 15 July 2018, Pages 166-173. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.exger.2018.04.013
Moon A, Heywood L, Rutherford S, Cobbold C. Creatine supplementation: can it improve quality of life in the elderly without associated resistance training? Current Aging Science. 2013 Dec;6(3):251-7.
Eric S. Rawson, Mary P. Miles, and D. Enette Larson-Meyer. Dietary Supplements for Health, Adaptation, and Recovery in Athletes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism 2018 28:2, 188-199.
Rogerson D. Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2017;14:36. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0192-9.