Precautions in Taking Food Supplements
Healthy nutrition is essential for your well-being, but sometimes it can be tricky to have adequate alimentation. Whether you’re trying to lose weight, dealing with health issues, or simply want to have a balanced diet, you’ve probably found yourself struggling about what food to eat to feel good or what supplements to take to feel better.
But first, what’s food’s essential function? We eat to get energy and adequate nutrients to assure our bodies’ correct functioning. Sometimes we’re captivated by the miraculous claims of the latest diet on the rise, or we’re too busy trying to balance the percentage of micro- and macronutrients in our meals, and we forget about the primary purpose of food. Furthermore, we need to be aware that we don’t always get all that we need from diet. Evidence shows that Canadians may have inadequate intake of some essential micronutrients (to know more about the Dietary Reference Intakes, check this guide from Health Canada).
Food supplements have become a popular solution to address problems diet alone can’t solve. It has become extremely easy to find them, and you don’t need a prescription to buy them.
Despite their increasing popularity, there’s still too much confusion around supplements. Who needs to take them, and for what reasons? Are there any precautions for taking food supplements? Can these preparations be harmful?
The short answer is that you can get plenty of benefits from food supplements, but only if you use them wisely. In this article, we’ll cover all you need to know about them and explain how to maximize their benefits. These are crucial to know because while anyone can take supplements, not everyone should be, especially without a physician's approval.
Why do you need food supplements?
In an ideal world, you’d take everything you need from the diet, and absorb all the nutrients without any troubles. Unfortunately, the reality is different. It isn’t very easy to get a perfect equilibrium. Trying to balance every nutrient in your meals could drive you crazy — you risk ending up counting up to milligrams all the food you eat.
Due to your diet, or in some specific periods of life, you might not get all the necessary nutrients from what you eat. Aging, pregnancy, menopause, dietary restrictions, and allergies are among the most common causes of nutritional imbalances.
That’s when dietary supplements come to help: they’re used to compensate for lack of nutrients and to meet daily intake requirements. Such supplements can be vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, or amino acids, and they’re generally available as pills, capsules, tablets, powders, or liquids.
Take care of your nutritional balance
Our busy lifestyles can be detrimental to our health. Even if you’re not in the risk categories shown above, you may not be able to meet your dietary reference intake. Perhaps you don’t have time to get a proper lunch break, or you come back home after a day at work and feel lazy to cook — warming up some pre-cooked meal or eating a snack is much more tempting.
It’s totally okay to feel demotivated by the idea of balancing your micro- and macronutrients all the time: sometimes, you simply can’t. Still, your body needs a certain amount of nutrients to function well. If one of those is lacking, or there’s an imbalance among them, problems may arise. It’s vital to take care of your nutritional balance and regularly check your health to monitor nutrients in your blood.
What do you need to know before taking supplements?
First of all, the aim of introducing essential nutrients from other sources than food is to supply an unbalanced diet. That’s what supplements are meant to do. Overuse is not recommended and is not beneficial to the body. Quite the contrary, it can be harmful.
The golden rule before taking any supplements is to consult your family doctor or a physician: only a specialist can state whether they’re safe for you.
If you’re considering taking food supplements, we recommend you carefully read this guide to understand their main benefits and risks. They can be a powerful ally to your overall health, but only if you use them correctly.
When to use food supplements?
As mentioned above, specific conditions increase the probability of developing a lack in some nutrients. The first essential requisite to know whether you should take supplements is taking a blood test. Only with a blood test, you can find out whether you lack essential vitamins or minerals. If so, the next step is to talk to a doctor or to a physician and set up a proper therapy, if needed, or to decide to take food supplements.
Said so, you don’t have to monitor your nutrients levels constantly. You should worry about a possible nutrient deficiency if you experience some symptoms you can relate to low nutrient intake (see below for more details), or you’re in some of the following risk categories.
As they age, our bodies undergo several changes, which affect the overall health. With aging, the need for calories decreases. As a consequence, you tend to eat less, and you introduce fewer nutrients to your organism. That’s not all: your body’s ability to absorb nutrients decreases. Thus, you’re more likely to experience some lack of nutrients. The most common nutrients you need when you age are calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12.
If you’re following a specific diet (for ethical reasons, losing weight, or for allergies), you might suffer nutrients deficiency. For instance, gluten-free or keto diets can lack specific minerals and vitamins.
Vegans and vegetarians are at risk, too: they may lack vitamin D, vitamin B12, and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). In some cases (e.g., vitamin D), they can find alternative sources coming for plant-based food. That’s different for vitamin B12, which is available only in animal products. If you’re following a vegan or vegetarian diet, you should take some measurements to assure an optimal intake of nutrients you lack (vitamin B12 in particular), and often supplements come to help.
During pregnancy, your macronutrient (proteins, fats, and carbohydrates) requirement increases. Your need for micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, increases even more. Certain nutrients, like folic acid, are crucial to prevent congenital disabilities. Talk to your doctor/gynecologist if you’re willing to take dietary supplements during pregnancy.
Some medications can limit your ability to absorb certain nutrients. Limited absorption doesn’t happen if you use a drug on a short-term basis; long-term use, instead, can affect your ability to absorb nutrients from dietary sources.
Proton-pump inhibitors to reduce reflux, diuretics used to lower blood pressure, or oral contraceptives are some of the drugs that can lead to a lack of vitamins and minerals (among which: vitamin B12, iron, calcium, potassium, and magnesium).
Symptoms of nutrients deficiency
You might be having a low intake of some nutrients without being aware of it. That’s because nutrients deficiency symptoms may vary according to the specific nutrient you’re missing out, and you can confuse them with sickness, fatigue, or stress.
You can suspect a low nutrient intake in the following cases:
· If you experience muscle cramps, irregular heartbeat, or changes in your mood, you may lack magnesium;
· If you feel tired and weak, have an irregular heartbeat, and experience constipation, you may have potassium deficiency;
· Weight loss, confusion, and fatigue can be caused by vitamin B1 (thiamin) deficiency;
· Fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, and tachycardia can be symptoms of vitamin B9 (folate) deficiency;
· Extreme fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath, and weight loss are symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency. If untreated, lack of vitamin B12 can have potentially harmful effects in a long-run: depression, memory loss, and difficulty walking;
· Weakened muscles and bone pain are the most common symptoms of vitamin D deficiency;
· Appetite reduction, decreased smell and/or taste, and weight loss can be signals of zinc deficiency. In the most severe cases, it can lead to hair loss, diarrhea, and eye and skin lesions.
It’s necessary to keep in mind that many of those symptoms aren’t specific. This means that they can be related to other diseases, so it’s important to consult a doctor and do a blood test.
What are the most common food supplements?
Multivitamins with minerals
Multivitamins are preparations that combine vitamins, minerals, and other ingredients. They’re among the most popular food supplements (you can find them in supermarkets too). Multivitamins are highly beneficial to elderly people: with aging, the cells’ reproduction gets slower, and nutrients’ need increases while calorie intake decreases.
It’s recommended to take them on a full stomach, possibly in the morning, to get their full benefits.
- support the immune system (when there is an unbalanced vitamin amount, the body is less able to defend itself from viruses and bacterias);
- promote cardiovascular health (vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, and magnesium are vital for the heart’s correct functioning);
- contribute to eye’s functioning (through vitamins A, C, E, and B3).
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for your organism as they contribute to cardiovascular health, support brain functioning, and promote joint flexibility. Dietary sources of omega-3 include salmon, mackerel, flax seeds, and chia seeds. People on dietary restrictions (such as vegans and vegetarians) might not get their daily intake of such nutrients and should take supplements.
Vitamin D regulates calcium absorption and has a primary role in supporting the bones’ health. A deficiency of vitamin D could lead to immune diseases and osteoporosis and has an impact on cardiovascular health. Unfortunately, vitamin D deficiency is a common condition worldwide. Around 32% of Canadians have a vitamin D concentration below the cut-off.
Together with vitamin D, calcium is vital for the bones’ health. A stable level of calcium in your body is necessary to prevent fractures. It also contributes to the secretion of hormones and enzymes and regulates the transmission of neural impulses throughout the body.
Vitamin B12, or cobalamin, is essential for your brain’s health and can only be introduced through diet. You can find it in animal products: eggs, raw dairies, fish, and meat. On the other hand, researches show that you can’t get vitamin B12 from plant-based food, and the vitamin B12 produced by your gut bacterias is difficult to absorb.
The most effective way to get an adequate intake of cobalamin is through animal products. Vegans and vegetarians often have a blood level of vitamin B12 lower than the threshold, so they should consider taking supplements.
Probiotics are usually live bacteria and yeast. . While you tend to think of bacterias as something harmful, some kinds of bacterias are beneficial for your body. Such “good bacterias” are essential for your gut health, and under specific conditions (for example, when you take antibiotics), they can be lacking.
Your gut influences your immune system, weight, and overall energy. When there’s an imbalance of good and bad bacterias in your gut, you might get sick, gain weight, or even feel depressed. That’s when probiotics come to help.
Collagen is the most abundant protein in your body; it’s essential as it “sticks” the skin together. It contributes to making your skin look shiny and young and is vital for your joints’ health.
Low collagen levels can lead to joint problems, sagging skin, and wrinkles. Supplements act by providing you with predigested collagen, which is much easier to absorb than the one you introduce with diet.
Hormonal imbalance can cause irregular periods, osteoporosis, hair loss, acne, weight gain, and many more problems. Sometimes, getting to manage your hormonal levels can be stressful, and that’s when supplements come to help. You don’t have to worry every single minute of your day about your diet and lifestyle if you take hormonal supplements.
Protein powders are preparations of concentrated sources of protein from animal or plant foods. They promote muscle mass and are helpful to people doing strength training.
Benefits and risk of food supplements
Supplements can be a good ally to your overall health. Here are their main benefits:
Support the immune system.
By reestablishing the optimal levels of nutrients in your body, supplements contribute to strengthening your immune system;
Improve sports performance.
Some supplements, such as multivitamins and protein powders, are particularly recommended to people who do sports training. They promote muscle mass and reintegrate the minerals and vitamins lost during physical activity;
You don’t need to worry about balancing your diet.
Getting an optimal intake of every nutrient can be tricky. Sometimes, you might find it discouraging to adopt a balanced diet, or you simply can’t (for example, if you have some food allergies). Taking supplements helps you to get an adequate balance of nutrients in your body without getting crazy about planning every single meal of the day;
They’re easier to absorb.
Some nutrients are easier to absorb if taken with food supplements. A typical example is collagen, a protein with a huge molecular structure. In supplements, collagen comes as a predigested form: it’s already broken into its basic amino acids, and this helps the organism to absorb it.
There are some risks associated with supplements, and most of them come from thoughtless use. Remember that, even if they’re not medicines, those preparations can interact with drugs you’re already taking.
Overuse or combination with medications that might interfere is the most common cause of health problems related to supplements. Minor risks are heartburn, upset stomach, or bloating. More severe effects include vomiting, nausea, bleeding, headache, and damages to the organs (liver, kidney, and heart are the most affected).
To prevent unpleasant consequences, you should follow the recommended guidelines. Do not take more than advised; before taking any supplements, talk to a doctor to be sure you need them and to set up a proper dosage.
Precautions for taking food supplements
At this point, it’s clear that dietary supplements have lots of benefits, but you must use them wisely and always inform your doctor before taking them.
What are other basic precautions you need to have when taking food supplements?
Read the labels carefully
That’s the first essential step before taking any supplement (as well as any medication). By reading the label, you’ll be sure about the product’s components, its expiry date, and the instructions to take it.
Avoid products that promises 'best' result in a short period
Avoid products that claim to obtain fantastic results in a short time. As with everything, restoring balance in your body is a long and complicated process. Before choosing any supplement, do proper research, read the reviews, and ask for a specialist’s advice if you need it.
Watch your dosage
The main point of taking supplements is to get the proper dose of a lacking nutrient. Therefore, it’s necessary to inform yourself about the amount you need to meet your body’s needs. If you take less than needed, you will have almost no benefits. On the other side, there’s no use in taking too much of a nutrient. A nutrient overload can cause vomiting, diarrhea, liver problems, or even more severe consequences.
Some vitamins (A, D, and E) are fat-soluble, and your body stores the surplus in your liver and in the fat tissue. Over time, these vitamins can reach a toxic level. Iron can be unhealthy to your body. If you store too much iron in your cells, you can have fatigue, joint pain, and damage some organs (e.g., liver, pancreas, and heart).
Follow the instructions
Some supplements act best on an empty stomach; in other cases, you might need to eat before. In any case, read the instructions and follow them: they’re developed based on clinical trials, so they give you the proper guidelines. Remember that, whenever in doubt, it’s better if you ask a physician. There’s plenty of information on the Internet, but most of the time is hard to discern whether it’s accurate or not.
Verify if there’s an interaction with other medications
As already said, supplements can interact with drugs you’re already taking and lead to unpleasant side effects. It’s crucial to always inform your doctor of all the medications you’re taking.
Store your supplements properly
Keep them away from children or pets, and make sure you store them in the proper temperature and light condition (you can find accurate information on the label).
Do not substitute food with dietary supplements
The best way to get most of the nutrients you need is by adopting a balanced diet. You should take supplements only if you can’t eat a certain food. In all the other cases, do not use supplements to substitute food! This choice can damage your liver, kidneys, and your overall health. It’s a good habit to constantly monitor kidney and liver function while you’re taking supplements.
Food supplements aren’t medicines
It’s important to clarify that food supplements aren’t medicines: they don’t cure any disease and can’t substitute medical therapy. Though they can be a valid ally to tackle some of the health problems an unbalanced diet may bring, supplements shouldn’t make health claims, and you should not intend them as a therapy.
So, if they aren’t medicines, can you buy them without a prescription? Yes. That sounds great! And can you use them as much as you want? In his case, the answer is no. Even if they’re sold as over-the-counter drugs, don’t be misled. Supplements can be unsafe in some specific situations; they can even lead to serious health consequences if you take them without following the guidelines.
Be aware of the regulations
As dietary supplements are neither food nor medicines, laws that regulate them are unique. Legislation in Canada changed after January 1st, 2004: before that date, natural health products (NHPs) were sold as drugs or food, and there was no separate regulation for them.
As more and more people were starting to use dietary supplements, the government introduced the Natural Health Products Regulation, which sets up a series of regulations to sell and distribute over-the-counter products in Canada.
Thanks to this regulation, products undergo strict controls before approval, ensuring that what is on the label is what is in the product. Consumers can be knowledgable that the products they buy are safe and that health claims are supported by evidence.
Food supplements as an ally for your overall health
This guide is supposed to give you guidelines and practical advice to know how and when to take supplements. There might be additional points we haven’t mentioned in the article that you’d want to take into account, so don’t hesitate to do your own research.
Everyone’s different, and there’s no point in taking something just because advertisements say it could boost your health. Remember that, after making sure with your doctor that the product won’t affect your health, the final decision whether to take a particular supplement is only yours.
Supplements are a powerful ally to your well-being, but remember that you must couple them with a balanced and healthful diet and regular exercise to get the most of their properties.