The human body relies on hundreds of vitamins, amino acids, antioxidants, minerals and fatty acids to optimally function. A balanced diet should provide sufficient amounts of almost any nutrient, yet nutritional deficiencies are – globally speaking – an increasing problem. How do food supplements fit into this picture and what is their purpose?
Most people can technically get all the nutrients they need by eating a healthy, balanced diet. Supplementation is redundant in individuals who eat everything, live healthy and are generally feeling healthy and well.
Yet nutritional deficiencies are fairly common, even in the modern world. Supplements are here to help recover nutrients when intake from diet alone is not adequate.
What is an optimal diet?
Having a healthy, balanced diet is an important part of maintaining good health. It means eating a wide variety of foods, including vegetables and fruit, cereals, fiber, dairy, meat, eggs, fish etc.
Shouldn’t be a problem, right? Yet fast pace of modern life, food processing, increasing prices of healthy foods and several other factors have a negative effect on nutritional status. Then there are different diet types, like veganism, in which individuals can compensate with well-balanced diet plans, yet cannot avoid inadequacy of some nutrition (B12).
Intervention with supplements is required when symptoms of nutritional deficiencies occur due to unbalanced nutrition or other factors.
Is nutritional status diet-depending only?
No, several other factors affect our nutritional status as well:
- Stress, smoking, alcohol, diseases, physical activity, drugs and medicines can deplete our body of several nutrients, especially antioxidants.
- Nutritional requirements are increased during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
- Older adults are known to have limited absorption in the gut and consequently experience nutritional deficiencies more often.
Essential dietary supplements
Supplementation with some nutrients (like iron) is only required in case of a proven deficiency, confirmed with a lab test result.
These few supplements below on the other hand are essential to our health and most people are lacking them through diet alone:
Vitamin D is one of the most important vitamins for normal functioning of the human body. It is crucial for bone and teeth development and health and also contributes to normal functioning of the immune system. It is synthesized in the body upon exposure to the sun, but recent studies show high prevalence of vitamin D deficiency as a world-wide problem and dietary supplementation is recommended.
There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids: ALA, EPA and DHA. While ALA is found in plants and is very common is the human diet, APA and DHA can only be obtained from seafood, such as fatty fish (e.g., salmon, tuna, and trout) and shellfish (e.g., crab, mussels, and oysters). Since this type of food isn’t necessarily common in our diet, supplementation is recommended.
Evidence suggests omega-3 supplementation contributes to normal functioning of the heart, maintenance of normal vision, normal brain function, normal fetal development (during pregnancy) etc.
While coenzyme Q10 isn’t an essential nutrient, its supplementation is highly recommended. Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is a vitamin-like nutrient, naturally present in every human cell. The highest levels of CoQ10 are found in the organs with high-energy requirements, such as heart, liver and kidney. Endogenous production of CoQ10 decreases rapidly after the age of 25. Smoking, stress, inadequate nutrition, statin therapy* and several other factors additionally effect CoQ10 levels in the human body. CoQ10 deficiency is associated with degenerative changes of aging, lack of energy and various health problems.
It plays an essential role in red blood cell formation, cell metabolism, nerve function and the production of DNA. Food sources of vitamin B12 include meat, fish and dairy products – only foods from animal sources. People who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet might be prone to deficiency because plant foods don’t contain vitamin B12. Older adults and people with digestive tract conditions that affect absorption of nutrients also are susceptible to vitamin B12 deficiency. Left untreated, a vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to anemia, fatigue, muscle weakness, intestinal problems, nerve damage and mood disturbances.
Other important dietary supplements
Magnesium – supports muscle and nerve function and energy production.
Vitamin C – for its antioxidant roles and contribution to immune system support, supplementation with higher dosages may be beneficial.
B-complex – it may support or promote energy levels, digestion, appetite, skin, nails and hair health and proper nerve function.
Zinc – contributes to skin, nails and hair health and normal function of the immune system.
Probiotics – for maintenance of balanced gut microflora.
What about non-essential dietary supplements?
Supplements with collagen, glucosamine, beta-glucan, ceramides etc. are currently on the rise, becoming more and more popular. While they do not contain essential nutrients, they still may deliver several health benefits.
The quality of these types of products is often questionable and not all of them are effective in what they promise. But how can one recognize good, quality products? Read more …