Dietary Supplements: Useful or Harmful?

One often hears in the media that certain vitamin supplements and other dietary supplements are good for our health. You almost get the impression: the more, the better. But be careful! If you are unsure yourself whether dietary supplements are useful for you or whether they can even be harmful, you will find important answers to your questions here. Read on for clarity.

In this article you will learn:

  • Why there are dietary supplements
  • What they are used for and what the studies say about them
  • When diet supplements can be useful
  • In which cases you should ask your doctor beforehand
  • What can happen in the event of an overdose
  • When diet supplements can be dangerous

Dietary Supplements: What Does Science Advise?

The ingredients in our food can be divided into two main groups: macro and micronutrients . While the macronutrients fat, proteins and carbohydrates primarily provide us with energy, micronutrients play an indispensable role for the correct functioning of all body functions.

Micronutrients support, for example, the energy metabolism, cell growth, the transmission of nerve signals and the formation of various messenger substances. In addition, some micronutrients are components of hormones, such as iodine, which is the central part of the thyroid hormone thyroxine. You can find out what other functions they have, what micronutrients there are and what foods contain them in our list of important micronutrients.

Since different foods contain micronutrients in different proportions, experts always recommend a balanced diet. This means that if possible, you should not always eat the same thing, but rather a wide variety of natural foods (vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grain products, dairy products, meat, fish, etc.) on the plate. In this way, in most cases, the chances are good that you will get adequate amounts of all the important micronutrients.

Why are there dietary supplements?

Dietary supplements  are primarily used to supplement a wholesome diet. Not eating consciously and trusting that you will meet your needs for all the important micronutrients through colorful pills is therefore the wrong approach. Unfortunately, it seems that some people are following this belief.

A balanced diet is superior to dietary supplements in most cases.

In 2018, 1000 people were asked about dietary supplements in a Forsa survey commissioned by consumer advice centers. 51% of the respondents said that they consider the tablets, capsules and powders to be beneficial for health.

However, this can be a dangerous belief, especially if it neglects nutrition. What many people are also not aware of: Only the combination of various vitamins, minerals and secondary plant substances, such as those found in fruit and vegetables in particular, is what determines the health-promoting properties.

The term dietary supplement is extremely flexible

Another important aspect is that not all food supplements are created equal. The shelves and online shops are now full to the brim with a wide variety of products. It is important to note the following:

  1. Differentiation between different manufacturers or brands : The distribution of food supplements is regulated by food law. Both national regulations and, for example in the European Union, certain EU rules apply. There are not only provisions on the marketability of the respective ingredients, but also rules for claiming product properties. In contrast to pharmaceuticals, however, there is no regulatory approval for dietary supplements. The manufacturers can market the products within the framework of the respective regulations in the respective country.
  2. Take a closer look at the preparation as such . There are different types of dietary supplements such as vitamins, minerals, amino acids, essential fatty acids, fiber, plant and herbal extracts and other ingredients such as algae or probiotic cultures.
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In principle, it should be clear to everyone: a wholesome diet is the top priority . Only then can one wonder whether certain dietary supplements can make sense.

What studies are there on dietary supplements?

As large as the field of dietary supplements is, there are so many studies on the subject. And their insights differ just as much. There is no unified scientific opinion here.

Some studies show that calcium and vitamin D, for example, help to strengthen bones, and folic acid reduces the risk of difficulties during pregnancy. Omega-3 fatty acids are said to aid some people with heart disease.

Still other studies conclude that dietary supplements are useless for the general public.

Here, too, numerous factors have to be considered, including:

  • Were the study participants healthy people with no special dietary requirements?
  • Were they special groups like pregnant women or vegans?
  • What type of dietary supplement was tested? Was it a single or multiple preparation?
  • What dosage, frequency and duration of use have been investigated?
  • What was the diet of the participants like?

As you can see, there are many factors to consider. Therefore, from a scientific point of view, it cannot be concluded whether dietary supplements are “good” or “bad” – it ALWAYS depends on the context.

Nevertheless, there are certain groups of people who, according to numerous studies and investigations, can benefit from taking very specific substances from today’s perspective. You will find out what these are in the next section.

When are dietary supplements useful?

Targeted nutritional supplements can be useful under certain circumstances.

These include various groups of people for whom it is now known that, as a rule, they cannot completely cover their micronutrient requirements through a balanced diet.

regnant women should be careful about which dietary supplements they take.

These are:

  1. Pregnant women: As explained in the article “ Dietary supplements during pregnancy: What can you safely take? ”  Explain in detail that expectant mothers have an increased need for folic acid and other B vitamins and iodine. Taking folic acid is also recommended if you want to have children and are not yet pregnant. For more information, take a look at the article.
  2. Breastfeeding women : After consulting a doctor, breastfeeding women should take 100 to 150 micrograms of iodine.
  3. People with proven iron deficiency : Especially in women (including pregnant and breastfeeding women), an iron deficiency is often determined by the doctor. If this is the case and the requirement cannot be covered by an iron-rich diet (especially dark meat, black pudding, liver, legumes), then a dietary supplement makes sense here too.
  4. Vegans : Since vegans completely dispense with products of animal origin, they are on the supply of vitamin B12instructed about dietary supplements, as this occurs only in foods of animal origin. Other critical micronutrients, the need for which is problematic in a strictly vegan diet, are iron (which is mainly contained in meat), calcium (in milk and dairy products), iodine and omega-3 fatty acids (fatty sea fish). However, the need for them can be met with a very conscious and well-balanced plant-based diet. Many minerals are arithmetically sufficient in plant-based foods, but they are bound in phytate complexes that are difficult for the body to access. Therefore, vegans and vegetarians have to be particularly careful when choosing the food.
  5. Newborns : In Germany, the recommendation is to give newborns a total of 2 mg of vitamin K 3 times: The first dose should be given shortly after birth and the other two at the second and third check-ups.
  6. Infants : According to the DGE, they should receive 10 micrograms of vitamin D and 0.25 mg of fluoride daily.
  7. People who are not or hardly in the sun or who protect their bodies from UV radiation with sun protection or clothing: Since the so-called sun vitamin “Vitamin D” only partly comes from the diet and is largely produced by direct sunlight, one Supplementing vitamin D makes sense in these cases. A poor supply of vitamin D can also be found in Europe in the winter months.
  8. Food supplements in old age : Seniors over 65 are considered to be a risk group for insufficient supply of vitamin D. As the diet often becomes more biased in old age, it is advisable to check the blood count.
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It is also common to hear that people with certain diseases, such as osteoporosis, benefit from taking certain micronutrients. However, since this is the treatment of illnesses, in this case no food supplements, but drugs are prescribed by the doctor. We also have a separate article on the subject of “ Dietary Supplements for Depression ”, which you can access with one click.

If, despite a conscious and balanced food selection, you feel permanently inefficient or have other complaints, then you should go to the doctor and have your nutritional status checked. In this way, he will determine whether you are missing something and can then advise you individually.

What to think of food supplements for children?

As part of the EsKiMo study (nutrition study as a KiGGS module) it was found that children consume most of the micronutrients in sufficient quantities. Exceptions are vitamin D and folic acid, as well as vitamins E and A for 6 to 11 year olds.

The scientists recommend increasing the consumption of vegetables and other plant-based foods such as whole grain products and potatoes from an early age. In this way, the supply can be significantly improved.

To ensure a good supply of vitamin D, the following applies here too: children should spend as much time as possible outdoors. Do not worry: The latest studies show that the formation of vitamin D is still sufficient even when sunscreen is used properly. In addition, 10 minutes of sun exposure on the face and hands is sufficient for the formation of vitamin D in summer in our latitudes.

Anyone who thinks that their child may have a deficiency due to the refusal of certain food or not enough time outdoors should see a doctor and clarify this. It only makes sense to give children a nutritional supplement if the doctor advises certain preparations.

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When are food supplements harmful?

Dietary supplements can be harmful, especially if there is an overdose. Various undesirable effects are possible. For example, too much beta-carotene in smokers can promote the development of lung cancer. Certain trace elements such as iron can also pose risks if taken in excess. Too much vitamin A can lead to problems in the development of the child in pregnant women. These are just a few examples of the serious consequences of an overdose.

Algae preparations carry the risk of taking in too much iodine, as the content is subject to strong fluctuations. Thyroid problems in particular can be a result.

f you spend enough time in the sun, you can save yourself vitamin D tablets.

It is also important to know that an increased intake of certain nutrients such as iron, zinc or fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) can prevent other nutrients from being properly absorbed in the body. An interaction with medication is also possible.

What you should pay attention to in order not to take any risks:

  • Do not resort to food supplements indiscriminately because you think they will do you good. Discuss your plans with your doctor, who can give you the best possible advice.
  • Beware of online shops: Nowadays, it is relatively easy for manufacturers from abroad to bring a dietary supplement onto the market that does not meet our strict food laws.
  • If you take medication, you should be particularly careful and clarify beforehand whether there can be any interactions. For example, taking vitamin K may require a dose adjustment for certain blood thinners.
  • Pay attention to the recommended daily intake and do not exceed it.
  • Beware of overdosed ingredients. A market check by the consumer advice center revealed, for example, that 64% of dietary supplements containing magnesium are overdosed.

Dietary Supplements – Yes or No?

There is no clear answer as to whether a dietary supplement is useful or harmful. Every person has different needs and every body uses its food differently.

First and foremost is always a balanced diet, which can cover the majority or even all of the micronutrients in a healthy person. Exceptions are, for example, groups of people such as pregnant women or vegans.

If you have any doubts as to whether you are missing a certain micronutrient, you should consult your doctor. Your doctor will advise you individually to find the right preparation if necessary.

In any case, overdosing and the indiscriminate purchase of supposed miracle drugs should be avoided. Rather, invest the money in a diverse, high-quality food selection.

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