Is there a need for food supplements?
13 November 2017
Although a balanced and varied diet is the best source of essential vitamins and minerals, the typical diet in the UK bears little resemblance to what experts recommend for fruits and vegetables and whole grains, all of which serve as important sources of an array of micronutrients and bioactive substances. Lean protein foods and low-fat dairy products are also very important sources of vitamins and minerals that help ensure health and wellbeing, whereas ‘unhealthy foods’, high in calories, sugar, fats and salt and low in fibre result in low intakes of the essential nutrients.
Persistent or periodic nutritional gaps are common in the general population, and people, particularly children, adolescents, women of childbearing age and the elderly who do not consume adequate amounts of certain foods, may have nutrient shortfalls. In addition, there are times throughout the life cycle when the body requires more nutrients than the typical diet may provide, such as during the rapid phases of growth associated with the growth of children and the adolescent growth spurt.
Over the course of a lifetime, deficiencies or suboptimal intakes in one or more nutrients may contribute to serious health consequences. The National Diet and Nutrition Surveys bear testament to the low intakes of essential nutrients and poor nutritional status of the UK population.
Food supplements, ranging from those that contain a small number of vitamins and minerals to those containing many more micronutrients and bioactive substances, and in varying amounts, can be useful in providing one or more nutrients that otherwise might be consumed in less than recommended amounts.
Nutrients of concern in adults and children include calcium and vitamin D, folic acid, iron and vitamin B12 as well as potassium. The usual intakes from foods (excluding supplements) are often below the recommendation for vitamins A, C and E and the mineral magnesium.
The term “hidden hunger” is often employed to describe suboptimal intakes that occur when people consume adequate or excessive calories but inadequate intakes of micronutrients. This “hidden hunger” is associated with eating patterns dominated by energy-dense, but poor nutrient-containing foods that are often relatively inexpensive.
Micronutrients are required for nearly all metabolic and developmental bodily processes. Most nutrients act in all tissues, including muscle and nervous tissues, and hence inadequate intakes may adversely affect every body system, but with more pronounced effects in some rather than others.
Food supplements can, therefore, be instrumental in filling nutritional gaps, including in population groups where the food supply is abundant. Food supplements are what the name implies, and they should not be regarded as substitutes for a balanced diet and other beneficial lifestyle habits, including adequate physical exercise.
Recommendations from government authorities (Department of Health, Public Health England) and health professionals to use food supplements, such as vitamin D, are based on national and international scientific benefit: risk considerations.
Current data suggest minimal, if any, risks associated with food supplements containing vitamins and minerals at recommended levels and found commonly in products on the market in the UK.
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