Are supplements necessary?

by Okanagan Nutrition

Nutrition supplements make up a multi-billion dollar industry!

In Canada, the term Natural Health Product (NHP), refers to vitamin and mineral supplements, herbal remedies, homeopathic medicines, probiotics, essential fatty acid (EPA/DHA) supplements, and amino acid supplements.

For simplicities sake, we will focus on vitamin and mineral supplements in this post.

With just about 50% of Canadian’s taking some sort of supplement daily, we know supplements are popular, but, do we really need to take one?

Why do people take supplements?

Generally, people take supplements like vitamins and minerals, to make sure they are getting enough essential nutrients for optimal health.

In todays world, people are more likely to be deficient in certain vitamins and minerals because of poor dietary choices – that is, eating too many ultra-processed foods and too few nutrient dense, whole foods.

Learning: You cannot out supplement a poor diet!

There is a reason that dietitians recommend a food first approach.

Plant foods have literally THOUSANDS of phytochemicals, along with vitamins and minerals that work in synch to give their incredible health benefits. Not to mention the protein, fibre, and healthful fats that you get when you eat whole foods.

This is why taking vitamin C pills will never have the same benefit as eating vitamin C rich foods like peppers, oranges, papaya, broccoli or brussels sprouts on a regular basis.

There is just no way that these miraculous relationships can be recreated in a laboratory (although people spend a lot of money and time to try). 

That being said, vitamin and mineral supplements can have an important place in practice.

When can supplements be helpful?
  • Different supplements are recommended depending on your life-stage

For example, it is recommended that all women of child-bearing age take a supplement or eat food fortified with 400 micrograms folic acid per day. This is to prevent neural tube defects that can begin even before a woman may know she is pregnant.

It is also recommended that men and women over the age of 50 consider supplementing with vitamin B12 and vitamin D.

  • Supplements are also helpful in filling nutrient “gaps”

If you are following a 100% plant-based (vegan) diet, it is advised that you take a vitamin B12 supplement.

If you follow a plant-based diet and are wanting more information on vitamin B12, calcium, iron, zinc, iodine, or omega-3’s, just click!

In Canada, it is advised that everyone take a vitamin D supplement during the winter months. As much as we love the Great North, we just cannot make enough vitamin D from sun exposure from October to March.

  • If you are recovering from major physical stress, like surgery or burn, for example, a daily multivitamin with minerals may be beneficial
  • If you follow a very restrictive diet

If you are not able to eat a varied, whole foods diet due to multiple food allergies, poor appetite or an extremely calorie-restricted diet, for example, a vitamin and mineral supplement can be important.

  • If you have certain medical conditions

In conditions like iron deficiency anemia, osteoporosis or diseases that affect the bodies ability to absorb certain vitamins or minerals, such as Crohn’s or celiac disease, your dietitian may recomment specific vitamin and mineral supplements.

What to be mindful of when choosing a supplement

Some vitamins and minerals in supplement form can interact with prescription medications.

For example, vitamin K can interfere with a prescription blood thinner like Warfarin (Coumadin) – even doses of this vitamin present in a daily multivitamin with mineral can prevent your medication from doing its job.

It is always important to talk to your health care provider and/or dietitian before starting a dietary supplement to make sure that it is safe for you.

When you look at a supplement label, check the %Daily Value (DV), and make sure you’re not getting too much of certain nutrients – if unsure, check with your health care provide, dietitian or pharmacist.

Bottom Line

(1) If you are eating a variety of nutrient-dense and whole foods, you generally do not need to take a supplement.

Eating a variety of nutrient rich foods – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, fortified dairy alternatives etc – is the best way to get all the nutrients you need for good health.

(2) If you are concerned that you are missing key nutrients in your diet, speak to your healthcare provider or dietitian. A dietitian can review your current diet, address any nutrient gaps and recommend specific vitamins or minerals that may be beneficial for you.

If you follow a a vegan or vegetarian diet, have specific medical conditions such as iron deficiency anemia, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease or osteoporosis for example, speak to your dietitian about the potential need for vitamin and mineral supplements.

(3) Don’t assume that just because a supplement is available over the counter and without a prescription, that it is safe

Many of us have this mentality that more is better, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Just because something is natural, does not mean that it is safe to take in high doses. If you are unsure about the amount of a nutrient in your vitamin or mineral supplement, check with your healthcare provider or dietitian OR look at your supplement label and compare to Health Canada’s set our Dietary Reference Intakes and recommended Upper Limits for different nutrients to ensure you aren’t getting too much.

(4) Look for a Natural Product Number (NPN) on your supplement bottle

If the supplement has a Natural Product Number (NPN) or a Homeopathic Medicine Number (DIN-HM), the supplement meets Health Canada’s standards for safety, quality, and health claims. This number is 8 digits long.

Do you have specific questions about vitamin and/or mineral supplements? Reach out to me at info@okanagannutrition.ca OR comment below!

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