When should I take dietary supplements?

Suplementos vitamínicos

A well-balanced diet can be expected to contain a wide array of nutrients. Nevertheless, many people choose to additionally consume dietary supplements, especially when they feel tired or under the weather.

How beneficial are these supplements? Is it better to get our nutrients from food or a pill?

Supplements vs food

The dietary supplement industry may be worth hundreds of billions of dollars worldwide for pharmaceutical companies, yet the medical consensus is clear: most people do not need to take nutritional supplements.

Supplements simply cannot replicate all the nutrients and benefits of a balanced diet – one consisting of whole grains, fruit, vegetables, legumes, meat and fish. For this reason, most people’s nutritional needs should be met primarily through their diet.

Nevertheless, dietary supplements are recommended in specific cases, including for people who:

  • Are pregnant or trying to get pregnant.
  • Are age 50 or over.
  • Have a poor appetite or trouble eating.
  • Have a restrictive diet or food intolerances that exclude entire food groups.
  • Have a medical condition that affects nutrient absorption, e.g. chronic diarrhea, disease of the liver, or digestive tract surgery.

What is the most common vitamin deficiency in Spain?

Vitamin D is the most common vitamin deficiency in Spain. This is somewhat surprising as the body naturally obtains this nutrient from exposure to sunlight, something that by and large the country has no shortage of.

Vitamin D deficiency can lead to serious health disorders such as osteoporosis, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, irritable bowel syndrome and, as discovered more recently, an increased risk to Covid-19.

It is estimated that up to 50% of residents in Spain would benefit from higher levels of vitamin D. While the regular intake of vitamin D pills should help, doctors typically prefer a simpler remedy: spending 10 minutes outdoors every day.

Risks of dietary supplements

Taking too many dietary supplements, or taking them for too long, could be harmful for one’s health, e.g.:

  • Too much calcium can lead to constipation as well as inhibit the absorption of iron and zinc.
  • Too much vitamin D can produce cardiovascular problems.
  • Too much iron can cause intestinal issues, convulsions, coma or multi-organ failure.
  • Too much folic acid can mask B12 deficiency and increase the likelihood of developing colorectal cancer.

If you’re wondering whether you need dietary supplements, talk to your doctor or dietitian. Be sure to ask about dosage, side effects and possible interactions with any medications you take.

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