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Food and dietary supplementation – expensive urine or miracle cure?

Many of us continue to be gripped by the fear of getting sick and uncertainty about how to stay healthy. This mindset has been highlighted by the current COVID19 pandemic. Besides following the mandatory social distancing guidelines, personal hygiene practices and eating healthy meals, we may well have encountered advice recommending dietary supplementation to boost your immunity.

What should you know about food and dietary supplementation before you rush out and buy the whole health food store?

In the world of medicine and healthcare today there are beliefs about supplementation ranging from ‘Vitamins make expensive urine’ to ‘Supplements are miracle cures’. What are we to believe or is it all opinion, politics and marketing? To those willing to dig deeper, they probably may find that the truth of the matter lies somewhere in between.

What is a food supplement?

A food supplement is something you can take in addition to your best healthy diet. It is not a replacement for good clean food but meant to be a complimentary item. Supplements come in the many shapes and forms of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, essential fats, herbals or combinations of these ingredients.

Some experts say supplements may help you to optimise your health by filling in the nutritional gaps left by a suboptimal diet. If your best diet is still missing some key nutrients, then it stands to reason that a well-indicated supplement could be a potentially vital part of your journey to health.

Food vs Supplements

Most people agree with the logic that it is ideal to get all our nutritional needs from the food we eat. But how many people eat a balanced and nutrient-dense diet 100% of the time? In our modern world where convenience and fast foods often form the standard diet, it is possible that some gaps in the nutritional spectrum exist. Could many of the common ailments we suffer from be caused by nutrient deficiencies? And where do supplements fit in? Can and do they fill these nutrient gaps and deliver improved health and wellbeing?

In the face of high rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer, some healthcare models are moving towards integrating lifestyle interventions and using dietary supplementation. If supplements become medicines, they need to be regulated and scrutinised more carefully.

Dangerous vs Safe

Many consumers may have been lulled into a false sense that because supplements are ‘natural’, they must be 100% safe. Maybe we should not be so trusting of this industry. There have been reports in the media about the dangers of supplements due to the presence of contaminants such as heavy metals, fungi and bacteria.

The amount of scientific evidence we have on dietary supplements varies widely—we have a lot of information on some and very little on others. Many dietary supplements have not been tested in pregnant women, nursing mothers, or children so we just don’t have enough safety data for these population groups. We do know that certain dietary supplements may interact with medications or cause problems in medical situations like if you are going to have surgery.

As is also the case in conventional pharmacy, the devil is in the dose. If you stick to what is recommended, quality well-indicated supplements are generally safe.

Synthetic vs Natural

Not all supplements are made equal. Not all are bioavailable: able to be well absorbed and used effectively by our bodies. Let’s focus on the quality of ingredients and the types of sources used in supplements.

There is a hierarchy of sources ranging from synthetic ingredients to an organic wholefood source. Synthetic ingredients are generally low quality have lower bioavailability and therefore make ‘expensive urine’.

Wholefood sources mimic the cocktail of chemicals present in real foods and are said to have better bioavailability. Fermented and sprouted ingredients are thought to add even more nutritional value to supplements.

It is common practice to see an active ingredient in the form of an artificial chemical isolate combined with a wholefood base. A good example is omega 3 fish oil supplements that contain a small amount of the active essential fatty acid EPA and DHA combined with a large quantity of fish oil concentrate.

Expensive vs Cheap

Standing in front of shelves full of different supplement brands can be an overwhelming experience. How does one choose the best product for you? As consumers, we are very susceptible to the power of marketing and the economics of affordability. The supplement industry is after all an industry. It is such a common experience with taking vitamins to feel no change or improvement and to believe that you have wasted your money. Do you get what you pay for?

The price is often what dictates which product we buy. Perhaps you are on a tight budget and choose the cheapest. Or maybe you know something about the inferior quality of cheap brands and go for the mid-priced range to be on the safe side. What makes the most expensive brands that much better is often difficult to discern without looking carefully at both the company and label.

How do you choose a quality supplement that suits your health needs and pocket?
  • Be a responsible consumer. Do some background research or a google search on the supplement company mission and vision. If you can’t easily find this and the other information below, it should raise some red flags and you should immediately be suspicious of brand quality.

  • Read product labels. One needs to be really diligent and dedicated to not fall for blatant marketing and crazy claims. If it seems to be good to be true, it probably is. Words like ‘natural’, ‘pure’ and ‘clean’ mean nothing unless there is proof of Good Manufacturing Practices or GMP compliance.

  • Look for disclosures. Does the company disclose ingredient suppliers, country of origin and supply chain traceability? More transparency generally equates to a more ethical, sustainable and quality product.

  • Certifications and GMP compliance. Look for products that have been 3rd party tested for safety and label accuracy.

  • Resist impulse purchases and buying according to health trends or fads which may end up being expensive in the long term and counterproductive to your unique health needs.

  • Work with a trained practitioner to help personalise your supplement needs and point you towards higher quality, safe and ethical brands.

There may not be a single magic silver bullet when it comes to health and disease control. My advice to you is to be a responsible consumer, read supplement labels and start with one quality, well-indicated product and take it regularly. When all is said and done, the best supplement for you is the one you actually swallow every day!


About the author: Nicole is a wife, mother to 2 teenagers, writer and health & lifestyle educator. She uses her master’s degree training and almost 20 years of clinical experience with classical homoeopathy and functional medicine to provide personalized solutions for her international client base. As a South African living in Eindhoven, she has a passion for nature, food, sustainable living and empowering health seekers. She created Wellness Place International for those looking to reclaim and maintain their health.

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