Is your vitamin supplement strategy past its sell-by date?

September 1, 2008

Is your vitamin supplement strategy past its sell-by date?

LIFE is full of compromises, but the next time you choose that artificial sweetener over sugar, or when you decide to buy low-fat spread instead of butter, you may not be doing as much good as you would like.

Even taking your usual dose of vitamins could be counteracting your healthy objectives.

How can this be? Although the advice you have been given might have been with the best intention, remember that even scientific information can be past its sell-by date.

The importance of choosing not only an appropriate nutritional strategy but also a current one to tackle, for example, extra weight, diabetes, or high blood cholesterol cannot be emphasised enough. Even your �healthy eating� philosophy and practices should be scrutinised from time to time to ensure continuous optimum benefit.

For those who would rather stay out of this debate and would rather �eat what they like and enjoy life�, take note that for the first time in human history, diseases associated with lifestyle are a bigger problem than infectious diseases, and by 2025 it is estimated that 60% of the world�s population will be diabetic.

Why does nutrition information seem so contradictory? First, you should keep in mind that nutrition is a constantly evolving science. New research is released every day. Recommendations made 10 or five years ago, or even one year ago, may have to be reviewed. In other words, if you have been avoiding a certain food for a few years, it might be time to check if this approach is still in your best interest.

Today, more so than ever before, nutrition strategies should be prescribed by someone with comprehensive knowledge of the dynamics associated with, for example, weight loss, heart disease and other lifestyle related conditions.

Others who make nutritional recommendations or �prescribe� specific nutrients may not have comprehensive knowledge, and not everyone who knows something about nutrition is qualified enough.

To understand the underlying factors involved in nutrition and its role in health and disease requires indepth knowledge of a wide range of disciplines: physiology, chemistry, biochemistry, mathematics, genetics, physics, microbiology, pathology and even psychology.

In addition, you should have the intent and interest to keep up with changes and new information about nutrition. Remember: nutrition is an independent scientific field that is not just complementary to medicine, nursing or pharmaceutics. It is a vast and multifaceted topic, and nutrients and food ingredients are not without potential harm.

In the past couple of months, a number of talks were held around SA advocating the importance of supplementation. Indeed, despite the increasing trend to advocate mega doses (far higher amounts than would be found in foods) of vitamins such as vitamin C, A, and E to treat and prevent everything from the common cold to ageing, the evidence of beneficence is scant.

In April this year, a report was released by the prestigious US-based Cochrane Collaboration, an international not-for-profit organisation that provides up-to-date information about the effects of health care. It is recognised internationally as a gold standard to review research and to improve global health-care decision-making through systematic reviews of the effects of health-care interventions.

The report is clear in its recommendation that it is time to rethink the practice in which vitamins with antioxidant functions, such as vitamins A, C, E and selenium, are taken in mega doses to optimise health and treat certain conditions. Not only does it appear that antioxidant supplements are unlikely to have any positive role, but in fact there may even be the possibility of harm.

Another special report published by Harvard Medical School newsletter looked at calcium. The report concluded that �in 2005 results from two British studies showed that calcium didn�t prevent fractures � even when taken in combination with vitamin D. The next year, results from a large American trial, the Women�s Health Initiative, showed that postmenopausal women who took a calcium-vitamin D combination were no less likely to break their hip than women who took a placebo pill, although the density of their hip bones increased slightly.�

Does this mean all supplements are bad and all previous diets you have been advised to follow could be harmful? Certainly not. But it does warn that everyone taking a vitamin supplement should take a moment to reassess and, very importantly, no one should assume that any vitamin supplement may replace the responsibility to eat properly.

The fallacy that nutrients are likely to have either neutral or beneficial properties, and that the body will discard what it does not require, is treading on dangerous ground.

Now is the time to eat better. Most importantly, eat more fruit, more vegetables and � take note everyone who is blindly following a low-fat diet � nuts, seeds and avocado and other unprocessed sources of fat such as olives and olive oil. Yes, these items have been consistently associated with numerous health benefits and the ability to help prevent disease. This advice has no sell-by date.

The same cannot be said of supplements, potions and lotions.

# Mariza van Zyl is a registered dietician and head of food and nutrition consultancy firm Better Eat, which provides expertise to corporate clients, nonprofit organisations, schools, charities and individuals. E-mail or visit

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