By Maeve O’Keefe – Food & Health Editor
A routine scroll through your social media feed can often feel like a bombardment of messaging about health and wellbeing. Every day, there appears to be a new Instagram influencer hailing an obscure detox tea for a perfectly hourglass figure, gummies for miraculously long shiny hair, and protein powders for a toned physique. As we are all aware of the pressures that social media can impose upon us, these new wellness trends can be intriguing. Is there some truth in the claims of astonishing effects from a few dietary supplements, or is this simply another means of exploiting an increasingly health conscious and image aware demographic? Aside from the murky and vague benefits proclaimed by the modern-day prophecies of Instagram, one might be motivated to take other kinds of dietary supplements for vitamins and minerals that they may feel their diet lacks, or to reap the benefits of improved energy and immunity. Given the current situation with Covid-19, it is not surprising to learn that the sales of certain vitamins have skyrocketed in recent months, but to what extent are we really protecting ourselves? With such an influx of conflicting information and unreliable online advice, one can be left wondering if they are doing enough to stay safe and healthy.
Before beginning, I must remind you that I am in no position to dispense concrete dietary advice. If you are concerned or even curious about any inadequacies in your diet, I can only recommend consulting your doctor before barging into your local health food shop to stock up on barrels of vitamin tablets. A balanced diet is the obvious choice in maintaining a nutritional equilibrium, and consuming an excess of certain vitamins and minerals can cause more harm than good if unnecessary and unregulated. Supplements, as the name suggests, should be employed only to fill in the gaps left by nutrients missing in an individual’s diet, not as a substitution for proper meals and nourishment. However, some people may have diets that restrict the intake of certain nutrients by nature, for instance – vegans, vegetarians, individuals with food allergies, or pregnant women. Individuals with special diets may rely on dietary supplements to support healthy functioning, but should seek professional advice on what nutrients they may need to outsource in the form of supplements. However, if you are unaware of what the potential benefits of the incorporation of some vitamin and mineral supplements are in the diet, look no further for your simple A to Z of some of the most common dietary supplements.
Vitamin A is not as commonplace in supplement form as other nutrients, because it’s not something that needs to be supplemented in most people’s diets. That is not to dispute the value of Vitamin A in the diet; its vital role in preserving a healthy immune system and vision has led to many weary parents telling reluctant children that eating all of their carrots will make them see in the dark. As a fat-soluble vitamin though (meaning it does not need to be taken every day) it is not advised that one exceeds their daily recommended allowance of Vitamin A. A balanced diet should provide enough of the nutrient without having to take Vitamin A supplements, unless recommended by a doctor.
The B group vitamins work towards a reduction of tiredness and fatigue, as well as supporting a healthy metabolism. Again, we normally get enough Vitamin B from the food we eat, without having to outsource it in supplement form. However, those on vegetarian or vegan diets may need to take a B12 supplement, as it is a nutrient largely supplied by animal produce.
The term scurvy may be evocative of pirates of a by-gone era, but in reality, many college students are at risk of developing scurvy due to a Vitamin C deficiency. Insufficient intake of fruit and vegetables can lead to the onset of scurvy, and so Vitamin C supplements are among the most commonly consumed dietary supplements. You can benefit from enhanced immunity, as well as antioxidant properties and improved iron absorption by incorporating a daily 500mg supplement of Vitamin C into your routine, while continuing to aim for your 5 a day of fruit and vegetables.
‘Dem bones dem bones need calcium…’ Do you remember those lines from the advertisement on television years ago? Well, calcium is still an important mineral for maintaining healthy bones and teeth, and can be obtained in the diet through the consumption of dairy products, tinned fish, and dark green leafy vegetables. There is mixed evidence surrounding the risks of taking a calcium supplement, and it is generally only recommended for those following vegan or lactose free diets, as these people are less likely to have sufficient calcium in their diets.
Vitamin D has been christened the ‘sunshine vitamin’ as exposure to the sun can help us obtain the vitamin so vital for the absorption of calcium as well as benefiting immunity. Here in Ireland, it is unlikely that we consume enough Vitamin D through diet and time spent in the sun, so many people opt for a Vitamin D supplement through the winter months. However, in recent weeks there has been a growing emphasis on the importance of Vitamin D supplements as potentially having a role to play in fighting Covid-19. The research in this area is only budding, and taking a daily supplement of Vitamin D is certainly not a free pass to be reckless towards restrictions, but evidence to support the efficacy of Vitamin D against Covid-19 is accumulating, and cannot be ignored. Including a Vitamin D supplement in the diet is already recommended here, and with an emerging association between Vitamin D deficiency and Covid-19 infectiousness, morbidity, and mortality, it is a worthwhile addition to your daily routine.
A spoonful of cod-liver oil or a capsule of omega-3 from fish oils are popular dietary supplements, and for good reason, with an abundance of support for enhanced mental function and coronary benefits. Although I can’t promise that this supplement will insure you pass all of your exams with flying colours, a daily supplement won’t do the brain any harm, particularly if you aren’t consuming the recommended 1-2 portions of fish per week.
Whether you’re concerned about a receding hairline or are in envy of the glossy manes on display in Instagram posts, it can be tempting to succumb to the trend of hair growth gummies and supplements. In terms of concrete evidence to support the efficacy of these hair growth supplements, a healthy dose of scepticism is to be advised. The majority of studies to support claims of improved shine, thickness and growth from these supplements are funded by the companies that manufacture them, so there is a clear conflict of interest to be critical of. As well as that, there is a great disparity in the contents of different brands of hair growth supplements, and so one cannot generalise that all hair growth supplements are useful or not. Some more targeted options like a Biotin supplement may prove more effective than a few jellies masquerading as scientifically proven hair growth enhancers.
Iron is an important mineral for haemoglobin in the blood, and an iron deficiency can result in anaemia, which is characterised by feeling faint, dizzy and weak. Doctors generally only advise the inclusion of iron supplements in instances of anaemia, when the individual is unlikely to meet recommended iron intake through the consumption of red meat, offal, and dark green vegetables alone. As with all dietary supplements, one should not take iron supplements unless told to by their doctor, as too much iron can be toxic.
The increased prominence of exercise and sport performance in recent years has seen a new trend develop in the consumption of protein powders. These powders, typically made of whey or soy, can be an easy and convenient source of protein, and are particularly popular amongst athletic types hoping to improve their muscle mass. That said, most people (even elite athletes) can probably get enough protein through their diet alone, without needing to supplement with protein powders which are often loaded with sodium and sugar. Those who may actually be in need of heightened protein intake include vegans, people recovering from injury, and people starting a new or more intense exercise program.
Zinc is another important mineral readily available in supplement form. Taking a 15- 30mg daily supplement of zinc may benefit immunity as well as skin health. Just as with all other supplements mentioned, exceeding the recommended daily dosage is not advised, but overall, zinc can be a valuable addition to your daily routine.
At the end of the day, when it comes to dietary supplements, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Taking a daily supplement in the right dosage may improve your wellbeing, but it is unlikely to prompt drastic transformation, so beware of click-bait and hollow promises from airbrushed influencers.