Thu | Mar 23, 2023

Why take supplements?

Published:Tuesday | April 10, 2012 | 12:00 AM

UP UNTIL fairly recently, mainstream medicine did not support the idea of healthy people taking nutritional supplements. In medical school, I was taught that one only needed to have a 'balanced' diet and that supplements were essentially unnecessary.

Thankfully, this antivitamin position has changed as irrefutable evidence has emerged showing that regular vitamin supplementation could reduce the risk of many common diseases. Sadly, it is still common for doctors to tell their patients that they do not need vitamin supplements if they are eating properly.

In April 1998, the editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine was entitled 'Eat Right and Take a Multi-Vitamin'. In this article, compelling evidence was presented that showed that certain vitamin supplements could reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes. This was the first time that a prestigious medical journal was recommending vitamin supplements.

An even stronger endorsement for the use of vitamin supplements came in the June 19, 2002 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Harvard University doctors reported that people who get enough vitamins might be able to prevent such common illnesses as cancer, heart disease, and osteoporosis.

Today, over one-third of North Americans take multivitamins and other supplements, but many are reluctant to tell their doctors for fear that they may disapprove. I suspect that the same situation exists here in Jamaica, although many of my Jamaican medical colleagues are now recommending vitamin, mineral and herbal supplements to their patients. I applaud them.

However, to confuse the issue, research suggests that as much as one-third of dietary supplements (vitamins, minerals, and herbals), have problems: The products do not contain what the label says, or may contain other undisclosed substances that may create a health hazard.

In addition, the active ingre-dients in a supplement may not be readily absorbed or utilised (bioavailable) by the human body and are, thus, ineffective.

Fortunately, in Jamaica our Ministry of Health has been vigilant in protecting the interest of the public in this matter. I hope, however, that in doing so, the right of the individual to choose supplements for him or herself will not be infringed upon.

After all, the possible problems that may arise from taking supplements are minute when compared with the side effects of prescription medication. Just imagine: more than 150,000 Americans die each year from the side effects of drugs prescribed by their doctors while, in the last few years, no one died from taking vitamins.

Here are some guidelines to help you in your choice and use of nutritional supplements:

  • Choose a reputable brand

The cheapest is not necessarily the best. Choose products from a company that has an established reputation for high-quality and effective products. Speak with individuals who have used that brand and have them share their experience. Well-trained network marketers of nutritional supplements are particularly helpful in this regard as they are usually heavy consumers of the products they sell. Some, but not all, health-food store personnel may also be helpful. I carefully research and select the brand of supplements I recommend to my clients.

  • Read the labels

The United States Food and Drug Administration monitors and regulates dietary supplements using two main laws: the Mega-dosage Law, which says that no food supplement should have an amount of any one ingredient that could create harm when taken at the recommended dosage, and the Labelling Law, that says that any potential side effect that a dietary supplement may have and any necessary warnings about the use of such a product should appear on the product's label.

Unfortunately, some unscrupulous manufacturers still get away with outright fraud and that is why my first recommendation is so important.

Pay little attention to recommended daily allowances (RDA) values on the labels. The RDA is the minimum amount of a vitamin necessary to prevent you from being seriously deficient. I strongly believe that those levels are far too low for optimal health benefits. In fact, many experts consider the RDA to be obsolete and irrelevant to modern nutritional practice.

  • Educate yourself

The more informed you become about nutrition, the more responsibility you can take for maintaining excellent health. There are many books, tapes seminars and Internet sites that provide good information. I recommend my first books, An Ounce of Prevention 1 and 2, as good sources of information. Remember, 'your health is in your hands'.

  • Talk with your doctor

It is important that your doctor knows that you are taking supplements. If he or she objects to this practice, try to get an explanation as to the reason why. If your doctor is unwilling to discuss the matter with you, then I would suggest that you seek a second opinion or even change your health-care provider. Remember, we doctors are not always well informed about nutrition and nutritional supplementation.

  • Balance your nutrition

Despite their importance, multivitamin or mineral tablets alone are not a replacement for a balanced healthy diet. They should complement your diet. In particular, try to have at least seven servings of fresh fruit and vegetables. Limit your consumption of starch, sugar and unhealthy fats. Optimise your intake of healthy protein by including a high-quality nutritional protein shake drink in your daily diet.

The key supplements I recommend for everyone are a high quality multivitamin/mineral tablet, the omega-3 fatty acids, and the antioxidants in generous quantities. Remember, good nutrition is basic to good health.

You may email Dr Tony Vendryes at or listen to 'An Ounce of Prevention' on POWER 106FM on Fridays at 8 p.m. His new book, 'An Ounce of Prevention, Especially for Women' is available locally and on the Internet.