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Dietary supplements: how useful are they?

by Josephine Andrews
Published: Last Updated on 158 views

Vitamin D capsules in winter, magnesium after exercise and folic acid during pregnancy: there are dietary supplements for almost every need. But how useful are they? Read more about dietary supplements and their benefits here.

What are dietary supplements?

Dietary supplements include foods that complement the general diet. They contain dosed concentrates of vitamins, minerals and other substances that have a nutritional or physiological effect. These include fiber , fatty acids, plant extracts or amino acids. They are available as tablets, capsules, powder or liquid ampoules.

The goal of dietary supplements is:

  • compensate for nutritional deficiencies
  • Maintain supply of certain nutrients
  • support certain physiological functions

However, it should be noted: Dietary supplements are not able to achieve a medicinal, immunological or metabolic effect. Therefore, they are not suitable for the treatment and prevention of diseases or for achieving specific physiological functions.

Since dietary supplements are equated with food and not with medicines, they do not undergo strict approvals. They are subject to the same standards that apply to products on supermarket shelves.

There is a huge selection of dietary supplements in drugstores, supermarkets and pharmacies – although there is actually little demand. Most people in Germany are sufficiently supplied with vitamins through their diet. In addition, there is no evidence that dietary supplements compensate for nutritional deficiencies.

According to the German Society for Nutrition (DGE), the intake of antioxidants such as beta-carotene, vitamins C and E or zinc and selenium is not necessary. Studies have not shown any positive effects. Rather, an overdose should be viewed critically.

Anyone who consumes high-dose preparations over a long period of time without a deficiency may damage their body. There are only a few exceptions when dietary supplements make sense, for example in the case of pregnancy or a vegan diet.

Do not take dietary supplements on suspicion, but always clarify with a doctor whether this makes sense.

Which dietary supplements are useful?

For the majority of the population, there is no reason to take supplements. However, there are small groups for which it may be necessary for various reasons – but only in consultation with a doctor.

  • Pregnant and lactating women
  • Seniors
  • toddlers and teenagers
  • smoker
  • people with high alcohol consumption
  • People who have an unbalanced diet
  • people under stress
  • Chronically ill people
  • vegan

Dietary supplements that are useful in certain circumstances include:

Folic acid if you want to have children and during pregnancy

Severe developmental disorders in the embryo threaten a lack of the B vitamin folic acid. Even a balanced mixed diet does not always cover the need for this vitamin. It is therefore important during pregnancy that women take a folic acid supplement. It is best to start when you are planning to have children and before conception.

Studies have shown that taking folic acid supplements during pregnancy can reduce the risk of malformations of the central nervous system in the unborn child by around 70 percent. The World Health Organization (WHO), among others, therefore recommends that pregnant women:

  • It is advisable to start taking it at least four weeks before conception.
  • Women who want to have children should start taking folic acid immediately after stopping contraception.
  • The daily intake is best divided into 400 micrograms of folic acid via a dietary supplement and 150 grams via foods containing folic acid such as green vegetables or legumes .
  • The end of intake is usually eight to twelve weeks after conception. If necessary, it can also be taken throughout the entire pregnancy.

Find out more about folic acid during pregnancy here .

Vitamin D im Winter

Vitamin D is responsible for maintaining bones and teeth. People get about 80 to 90 percent of the vitamin D they need from outdoor exposure to sunlight. The decisive factor is the UV-B radiation.

Only a small proportion of vitamin D is ingested through food. The background is that only a few foods contain significant amounts of it. These include, for example, eggs, fatty sea fish or certain offal.

Sufficient vitamin D intake is therefore only possible in Germany from March to October. During this time, however, the body builds up vitamin D reserves in fat and muscle tissue for the winter months. In order to get enough vitamin D, it is necessary to expose your face, hands and arms uncovered and without sunscreen two to three times a week to the sun. The following applies as a guideline: half the time that would otherwise occur without protection from sunburn is sufficient.

Dietary supplements with vitamin D are only an alternative if you cannot get enough vitamin D from sunlight or food. Always clarify this with a doctor first. If you take too much vitamin D from supplements or fortified foods, there is a risk of acute or insidious poisoning.

Signs of vitamin D poisoning are:

  • nausea
  • loss of appetite
  • Stomach cramps
  • Vomit
  • cardiac arrhythmias

UV-B radiation does not penetrate window panes. You can therefore not absorb vitamin D in bright rooms, but only outdoors.

Vitamin B12 in a vegan diet

No meat, fish or cheese: Anyone who eats a vegan diet does without all animal foods – and thus also all the nutrients they contain, such as vitamin B12 . It cannot be adequately absorbed through plant foods. Therefore, vitamin B-12 food supplements are useful for vegans.

It is best for those affected to use so-called mono products that only contain vitamin B12. Fortified foods such as juices or breakfast cereals are also suitable. Also pay close attention to your iodine, selenium and iron supply.

Note: Four micrograms of vitamin B12 per day is sufficient for adults to meet their needs. Some products contain much higher amounts. But more vitamin B12 is not necessarily better. Recent study results may link daily doses of more than 55 micrograms to an increased risk of cancer.

Combination preparations are also less suitable. They often contain nutrients that vegans do not need at all – such as vitamin C, which is sufficiently ingested through a purely plant-based diet.

Which supplements are unnecessary?

Thicker hair with biotin or slimming shakes: There are numerous dietary supplements on the market that have promising effects. But most of the time they don’t keep what they promise.

Dietary supplements for athletes

Amino acids, antioxidants, L-carnitine, taurine, creatine and caffeine: there are a number of dietary supplements that promise athletes more muscle, endurance or condition. In many cases, the effectiveness has not been scientifically proven or not sufficiently investigated.

It even becomes problematic when a dietary supplement causes damage to the body. Vitamins , for example, which are also popular with non-athletes, are under this suspicion . A large study provided evidence that taking vitamin A, C, and E pills does not increase life expectancy, but may even shorten it.

Find out more about dietary supplements for athletes here .

Food supplements for the hair

Biotin is a water-soluble B vitamin. It is a component of enzymes and thus involved in metabolic processes. Dietary supplements promise visible positive effects on the external appearance, especially on skin, hair and nails.

Although biotin has a variety of effects, including on the formation of new hair roots and nail beds, and a sufficient supply through nutrition is important, dietary supplements have no positive effect. There is no scientific evidence of any benefit. You can easily cover your daily biotin requirement through your diet.

There is plenty of biotin in it

  • beef liver
  • Yeast
  • egg yolk
  • peanuts
  • oatmeal

Learn more about biotin here.

slimming preparations

Would you like to lose weight? Then pills and powder are of little help. Often they only have short-term effects, since, for example, diuretics and laxatives lead to increased water loss or increased stool volume, but this is not real weight loss.

Diet shakes should also be used with caution. Do not replace all meals with it. This will not give you all the nutrients you need. In addition, the shakes often contain a lot of sugar.

If you want to curb your appetite with dietary supplements, you risk a yo-yo effect if you stop taking them. High-fiber foods such as wholemeal bread or legumes, which keep you full for a long time and avoid cravings, are more suitable.

Always be careful with weight loss supplements. Always talk to a doctor about this first. If you take any, pay close attention to what’s in it and only take it for a temporary period of time.

If you want to lose weight permanently, it is best to change your diet and integrate regular exercise into your everyday life.

Here are the best tips for changing your diet .

Dietary supplement for colds

Dietary supplements with vitamin C prevent colds? No, studies show that this is by no means the case. Only people who do extreme sports seem to have a positive effect from taking it.

Even if the cold is already here, products with vitamin C do not seem to have any demonstrable effect. The necessary amount of 100 milligrams of vitamin C per day is already contained in two small tomatoes, an orange or a pepper.

The same applies to zinc. Here, too, there are many advertising promises that the trace element prevents colds. In fact, a prolonged zinc deficiency increases susceptibility to infections. But: According to data from the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, the zinc requirement in Germany is already covered by a balanced diet.

On average, the supplied value is even 20 to 30 percent above the reference value given by the German Society for Nutrition. A healthy person therefore does not need to take dietary supplements with zinc.

There is also insufficient data on the effectiveness of zinc in preventing the common cold. It is also not advisable to take zinc preventively over a long period of time. A copper deficiency can be the result.

Are Diet Supplements Harmful?

You should never take dietary supplements without consulting a doctor, as taking them is suspected of being harmful. The background is: The nutrients are isolated via tablets, powders and the like and taken in high concentrations. This is potentially dangerous, especially with the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and E, as the body stores them.

An overdose of vitamins, minerals and trace elements may lead to these effects:

  • If you consume too much vitamin B3 (niacotinic acid), you risk reddening of the skin, headaches or a drop in blood pressure. Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea are also typical symptoms.
  • If you are predisposed to it, too much calcium may cause kidney stones or disrupt kidney function. There is also debate as to whether too much calcium affects the risk of heart disease and prostate cancer.
  • An overdose of the vitamin A precursor beta-carotene increases the risk of lung cancer in smokers.
  • If men take extra folic acid , there is a risk of prostate cancer.
  • If you overdose on zinc , you risk symptoms of poisoning such as nausea, diarrhea, abdominal cramps or headaches.
  • A prolonged overdose of vitamin E from dietary supplements can lead to gastrointestinal problems and an increased risk of bleeding.
  • Caution should also be exercised with vitamin B6 in dietary supplements. Too much of it can lead to nerve disorders and thus problems with walking.

There are also major qualitative differences between the various suppliers of dietary supplements. Be particularly careful with providers from the Internet, from abroad or with doorstep sales. The products can only be checked with difficulty by food control.

Inadmissible statements regarding the ingredients and composition on the packaging have already been identified in the past. Sometimes the preparations are overdosed. During a market check, the consumer advice center found that this was the case for 64 percent of the magnesium products examined. Side effects such as diarrhea and vomiting can result.

Dietary supplements for children

The products are mostly colorful and have funny shapes: According to the consumer advice center, around ten percent of children in Germany receive food supplements or foods enriched with vitamins and minerals. Here, too, studies have shown that many products were dosed too high. In addition, they were mostly superfluous and expensive.

To keep children healthy, a balanced diet, enough sleep and regular exercise are far more important pillars than dietary supplements.

Dietary supplements: You should pay attention to this!

  • If you consume dietary supplements, make sure you pay attention to the recommended daily dose.
  • Do not combine several preparations with each other.
  • If you are taking medication, check beforehand whether there may be any interactions.
  • Pay attention to who and where the preparations were made.
  • Dietary supplements are not medicines and are therefore not suitable for the treatment of diseases.

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