Health Check: can vitamins supplement a poor diet?

Vitamins and minerals are essential for keeping us in good health. While eating a varied diet should give us all the nutrients we need, recent diet and health surveys show the typical Australian diet is far from varied – or even close to what is considered a healthy diet.

To the rescue come vitamin and mineral supplements, but can they deliver on their promises and are they for everyone?

Who needs a supplement?

When writing about supplements, a glib approach is to state we can get everything we need from food, so we don’t need them. Eat your veggies. Don’t take supplements. End of story.

That isn’t the whole story, though. Already, our food supply is fortified with folic acid, iodine and thiamin to prevent serious public health issues related to conditions arising from deficiencies of these nutrients in some groups of people. So the rationale of needing to supplement for best health has some validity, but is underpinned by our generally poor eating habits to begin with.

There are groups of people for whom vitamin and mineral supplements would be recommended. Women planning pregnancy can benefit from a range of nutrients, such as folic acid and iodine, that reduce the risk of birth defects. People with limited exposure to sunlight would certainly be advised to consider a vitamin D supplement.

Frail and aged people are candidates as well due to food access problems, chewing and swallowing difficulties, absorption problems and medication. People with malabsorption problems, some vegetarians and people following chronic low-calorie diets all make the list as well. And, of course, people with a clinically diagnosed deficiency could all benefit from supplementation.

Why nutrients from food are better than from supplements

So should everyone take supplements “just in case”? Not so fast. Taking multivitamins as a nutritional insurance policy may be an issue for more than just your wallet. Seeing a supplement as a solution may contribute to neglecting healthy food choices, and this has bigger consequences for long-term health.

Food is a complex mix of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals (plant chemicals). Phytochemicals are an important component of food and help to reduce the risk of conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. Vitamin and mineral supplements do not provide the benefits of phytochemicals and other components found in food, such as fibre.

Whole foods usually contain vitamins and minerals in different forms – for example, vitamin E occurs in nature in eight different forms – but supplements contain just one of these forms.

We should get all of our vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals from vegetables, but that’s if we’re eating them.
from www.shutterstock.com

If you look at habits linked to long-term health, it is eating plenty of plant-based foods that comes out on top, not so much taking supplements. This meta-analysis of 21 multivitamin-multimineral supplement clinical trials failed to find any benefit of improved life-expectancy or lower risks of heart disease or cancer from taking supplements.

The promise of possible benefits from supplements takes the focus from what really does promote better health and less chronic disease: eating a varied diet with plenty of minimally processed plant-based foods, regular activity, drinking within guideline recommendations and not smoking.

For a healthy adult, if supplements are used, these should normally be taken at levels close to the recommended dietary intake. High-dose supplements should not be taken unless recommended under medical advice.

Formulations of multivitamins vary between manufacturers, with further market segmentation due to products aimed at different genders and life stages. For example, a multivitamin targeting women of childbearing age will likely be higher in iron than one for adult men. The government’s recommended dietary intakes for each vitamin and mineral are set out by gender and age, and manufacturers generally mirror these recommendations in their formulations.

Although taking too much of certain vitamins or minerals can be harmful, the doses present in multivitamins are typically low. After all, you can only pack so much of each nutrient into a multivitamin pill, and often it is not even close to the recommended dietary intake.

Vitamin and mineral supplements can’t replace a healthy diet, but a general multivitamin may help if your diet is inadequate or where there is already a well-supported rationale for you to take one. If you feel you could be lacking in certain vitamins and minerals, it is better to look at changing your diet and lifestyle first, rather than reaching for supplements.

The Conversation

Tim Crowe, Associate Professor in Nutrition, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

Top image: from www.shutterstock.com.au

The tiny bouillon cube that strikes a blow against iron deficiency

Maggi have released a bouillon cube, a tiny seasoning product sold in huge volumes across Central and West Africa to fight against iron deficiency anaemia.

Anaemia is the condition that arises when we have too few healthy red blood cells, or too little haemoglobin, the protein in these cells that transports oxygen around the body.

It affects an estimated 1.6 to 2 billion people in the developed and developing world, with approximately half of these cases due to a lack of iron in the diet, because this vital mineral helps us generate haemoglobin.

Pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable to iron deficiency anaemia, which contributes to the deaths of 50,000 women in childbirth a year, and impairs children’s physical and mental development.

According to Scentific Advisor at Nestle’s Nutrition, Health and Wellness department, Petra Klassen-Wigger, many people are failing to eat enough nutritious food, with Nestle aiming to help tackle the problem on a global scale by adding relevant micronutrients to its most popular products.

“Public health data shows us that Central West Africa suffers from a high prevalence of iron deficiency. We looked at our product portfolio to identify potential carriers for fortification. Maggi bouillon cubes and tablets were widely consumed across the region, making them an ideal vehicle for iron fortification,” Klassen-Wigger said.

Adding iron to food poses serious technical challenges. It can alter the taste, and may turn products various unappetizing shades of brown.

That wasn’t the only problem. Fortifying the cubes with iron would also raise production costs. If this meant higher prices, then those in need of such products might find them unaffordable.

In 2012, Nestlé launched its new, iron-fortified Maggi bouillon cubes onto the Central and West African market. They looked the same. They tasted the same. But there was one crucial difference.

Millions of people across the region could now incorporate more iron into their diets, without changing their eating habits.

Vitalvegetables delivering nutrients to Australian consumers

A new vitalvegetables range has been introduced in Australian retailers that aim to improve understanding of the healthy nutrients contained in the products.

Following more than ten years of research identifying the best varieties and combinations of vegetables, the products contain high levels of nutrients good for health.

A combination of vitamins A, C and K mean that an average product would be beneficial for a healthy immune system and for bone health.

According to Dr Carolyn Lister from Plant & Food Research, the developed products have been designed to retain a high concentration of key nutrients for consumer health.

“We recognise that consumers want to be healthy, and through the vitalvegetables research we’ve made it easier for them to manage their diets to ensure they’re eating the right nutrients for the health benefits that matter to them,” Dr Lister said.

Growers, packers, exporters and shipping companies have a common interest in providing the best possible quality produce to export markets.

Quality cannot be improved during handling and transport, but the rate at which it is lost can be reduced.

Each particular overseas market and/or customer has product specifications, for example, the size, colour and maturity of produce.

Thus produce should be grown with the intention of supplying a particular customer, and the harvesting, grading and packing should be carried out in accordance with those specifications.

The research team has worked with growers to determine the best way to grow and harvest the vegetables in order to optimise nutrients, developing processes that will assist in the maintenance of nutrients through the packaging and transportation of products to consumer purchasing. 

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER
Close