Professor Regan’s Diet Clinic, a TV programme broadcast recently as part of BBC2’s acclaimed Horizon series, came to the conclusion that supplements are totally unnecessary for people eating a balanced diet.
Academics interviewed in the programme supported this view, and went so far as to point out the dangers of certain vitamins when taken in large doses.
Take-home message for the viewers: Stay away from supplements - you don’t need them and they may even be dangerous.
I, however, took a different message away: Why is there a continued lack of understanding of what supplements actually do? I don’t want to sound patronising, but the clue is in the name - they ‘supplement’ diets. They bridge nutritional gaps; they are not meal replacements, nor are they a cure all.
Professor Regan’s message may have been made with all the best intentions - a balanced diet is the ideal way of meeting nutritional needs, but the issue is not ‘how things should be’ but ‘how things actually are’.
How many people do eat a balanced diet? I would argue very few. Hence the need for supplements.
Consider vegans and vitamin B12, or how many people in northern climes that are vitamin D deficient during winter months (and during some summer months, too). Are supplements unnecessary?
And what about folic acid to reduce the incidence of birth defects in children? Current recommendations in Europe are for supplements for women of childbearing age (many pregnancies are not planned). Why? Because they are not getting enough via the diet.
So while it may be all well and good to say that a balanced diet is the ideal - and I’m sure all involved in nutrition would agree - the science supporting the benefits of supplements to correct nutritional shortfalls should not be dismissed.
Going back to Professor Regan, the show sought to prove its point by profiling the nutritional intakes of two long-term supplement users. The dietary and supplemental intakes of these two ‘volunteers’ was evaluated, and it was found that their diet alone was sufficient to provide all the recommended daily intakes. Case proved?
I think not! An experiment with two people proves nothing. Second, if the volunteers have been taking supplements for 15 years then I’m guessing these two are pretty health conscious and take care of themselves - lots of studies have shown that long-term supplement users tend to lead healthy lifestyles.
Finally, where are the comparisons? Let’s grab a couple of kids off the street, a couple of office workers on their way home, and a grandmother on her way to the post office - let’s test them and see if they have a balanced diet. Why didn’t the programme makers do this?
Hopefully, consumers are smart enough to see through this. Supplement sales are increasing in a lot of places, suggesting people understand more about how they should be used than they are being given credit for.
Supplements play an important role in helping people fill the nutritional gaps left by their diets. For many, they are important and necessary. The anti-supplements record has been sprouting the same tune for years – time to change the disk.
Stephen Daniells is the Science Editor for NutraIngredients.com and FoodNavigator.com. He has a PhD in Chemistry from Queen's University Belfast and has worked in research in the Netherlands and France.
If you would like to comment on this article please contact stephen.daniells'at'decisionnews.com
I thought your article was a fairly good appraisal of the situation and the comments regarding folic acid very relevant. And as far the rather poor ‘experimental design’ mentioned – well this could be worthy of inclusion in ‘Bad Science’. A positive ‘placebo effect’ from supplement intake is likely as well – and the potential benefits of that should not be ignored either.
Professor Graham A. Bonwick
Director – Centre for Science Communication
University of Chester
Greetings Stephen Daniells,
I just got through reading your most recent news post on nutraingredients.com about supplements and the "take-home" message that has survived over the years: stick with a healthy diet and you most certainly won't need supplements. In fact, they may even harm you.
Being a health writer with close to 20 years of experience from the Scandinavian "supplement scene", I have heard this rather uninspiring and, in my opinion, misleading message over and over again and find it difficult to understand why the media always seem to fall for it.
Your story addressed the issue in a way that deserves applause. I have read many editorials and columns on this subject, but somehow you managed to touch down on the topic with a whole new style. I particularly liked the sentence where you write: "....a balanced diet is the ideal way of meeting nutritional needs, but the issue is not ‘how things should be’ but ‘how things actually are’."
THIS is crucial. We all know that a balanced diet is the best way to maintain good health but at the end of the day, how many of us actually manage to consume those foods that are needed in order to obtain the desired nutrient levels?
I would like to take the opportunity to pat your back for this story of yours and say that it is very well-written.
Bjorn Madsen, journalist (Denmark)