How to get your nutrients from food, not pills

Nutritionist Susie Burrell weighs in on how we should meet our nutritional requirements each day, without reaching for a pill that might not work. 

Vitamin and mineral supplements are a lucrative market in Australia, worth more than $1billion annually. Recent figures suggest that more than 50% of Aussies take some sort of vitamin or mineral supplement each year. It’s a ripe market filled with health claims of what the various mixes of vitamins and minerals can do for your daily energy, vitality and well-being. But do you really need supplements, or it is better to focus on eating a healthy diet?

Traditionally, vitamin supplements are recommended when dietary intakes are inadequate of a specific nutrient — a safeguard against nutritional deficiencies that can cause a range of health problems. Low levels of iron in menstruating women, for example, is a relatively common nutrient deficiency which can be successful treated through oral iron supplementation.

The fact is, while there are some health benefits associated with supplementing some specific nutrients with some deficiencies, there’s little evidence for supplementation when you eat a healthy, balanced diet rich in nutrients and vitamins.

In Australia, nutrient-rich food is readily available at a fair price and nutrient deficiencies are few and far between. The Australian Health Survey found that calcium and iron were two specific nutrients Australians were most likely to be lacking, as opposed to commonly marketed B and C group vitamins, for which low intakes are rarely reported.

Then there’s the argument for “super supplementation” — ingesting large amounts of nutrients to prevent disease and achieve optimal cell health and longevity. While the idea of popping a few extra pills to prevent ageing or a flu may sound promising, the evidence is sadly lacking for any additional health benefits associated with high intakes of vitamins and minerals. In fact, there’s concern that super supplementation may inhibit the body’s natural immune response, and can be dangerous long term as some vitamins and minerals get stored in various organs and tissues, causing more harm than good.

The fact is, when it comes to nutritional intake, there’s something very special about natural, whole foods and the way their nutrients interact with our bodies to optimise health. Take fresh fruit and vegetables for example: the wide range of antioxidants and phytochemicals is nearly impossible to bottle, which is why fresh produce will always outweigh supplements. Not only are the natural nutrients absorbed better from food, but the interaction of several different nutrients in the one source gives greater nutritional benefits.

If you still want or need to supplement, how do you know what’s safe to take? The best supplements are for specific nutrients that your diet is lacking, like fish oil if you don’t eat a lot of fish, or possibly iron or calcium if you know your levels are low. A general multivitamin can even be good if you’re travelling and eating poorly.

But in the case of buying bottles and bottles of expensive vitamins to ensure optimal health when you’re already eating well, chances are you’re quite literally flushing your money down the toilet.