Can you eat junk & take healthy supplements instead?

Can you eat junk and take healthy supplements?

A recent survey in Australia claimed just under a third of their respondents take at least one daily dietary supplement. In the US the proportion was even higher with just over half of the people surveyed saying they took at least one daily supplement.

A study just released focussed on the benefits of vitamin and mineral supplements for the prevention of heart disease, stroke and premature death. The research found that the most popular supplements had no effect, while some less used ones did have an impact and that some supplements can be harmful.

The supplements examined included vitamins A, B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B6 (pyridoxine), B9 (folic acid), C, D, E, beta-carotene, and the minerals calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium and selenium. Multivitamins were defined as including most of these vitamins and minerals.

In studies testing the four common supplements of multivitamins including vitamin D, calcium and vitamin C, there was no reduction in the incidence of heart disease, stroke or premature death. This means there was no benefit from taking them, but equally, they do no harm.

The study also evaluated less common supplements that did demonstrate having a positive effect on early death, heart disease and stroke. They found that folic acid supplements successfully showed a reduction in heart disease and stroke.

It was calculated that to prevent one case of heart disease or stroke, 111 people needed to be taking folic acid supplements. For stroke, 167 people would need to take folic acid to prevent one case, and 250 people would have to take B-complex vitamins (which contain folic acid, which is vitamin B9) to avoid one example.

However, there are contra-indications with folic acid supplements. For instance, there are some concerns that high levels of folic acid in the bloodstream may increase the risk of prostate cancer, although the results are not entirely conclusive.

Besides, in studies testing folic acid supplements, stroke was reduced in only two of the seven gold-standard studies. One of these was an extensive study of 20,000 people in China. As a country, China does not have a folic acid food fortification program, whereas, in many western countries including the UK, Australia and the US, it’s commonly added to bread and breakfast cereals.

While a small benefit for taking folic acid was found, researchers also found some adverse effects from supplementation. In particular, those taking a statin medication to lower blood cholesterol who also took slow or extended release vitamin B3 (niacin) increased their risk of early death by 10%. This means 200 people would have to take statins and niacin before we would see one case of premature death.

Vitamin D was the most studied supplement. Researchers found no benefits for heart disease or stroke prevention, but also no harm. This was a surprise, given vitamin D is commonly taken for other conditions, such as diabetes. But there was no benefit seen for early death, although the study’s authors acknowledged their results were inconclusive.

The study concluded there is low-to-moderate quality evidence for taking folic acid for the prevention of heart disease and stroke, and also for taking B-complex vitamins that include a folic acid for stroke.

So, does it mean we can eat junk food and supplement with healthy vitamins?

It would seem not.

Taking supplements is very different from eating real food. Complications or health issues due to nutrient levels in the bloodstream are practically always due to taking supplements, not eating real foods.

When you concentrate on one vitamin, mineral or nutrient in a supplement, you do not benefit from the other phytonutrients found in plant foods that contribute to overall health.

The increase in early death for taking some categories of supplements should be a wake-up call that stronger regulations are needed around supplements, and people need a lot more support to eat real food. They also need to improve the quality of what they eat instead of relying on supplements to support a nutritionally deficient diet.

Everyone needs to eat more nutrient-rich whole foods, including foods high in folates such as green leafy vegetables, legumes, seeds, free-range poultry, free-range eggs, omega 3 rich oily fish, whole cereals and citrus fruits. Most flour used in commercial bread production or breakfast cereals are fortified with folate, and without it, they would have little or no nutritional value. Food sources of niacin (vitamin B3) are found in meats, milk, eggs, wholegrain bread and cereals, nuts, leafy green vegetables and protein-containing foods. Always try to buy grass-fed beef or high welfare meat for higher levels of omega -3 essential fatty acids.

If you are confused about what to eat and who wouldn’t be with all the conflicting information out there, Sally Baker and Liz Hogon wrote How to Feel Differently About Food published by Hammersmith Books just for you. It’s available on Amazon.





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