Supplementation is a hot topic. Not only that, it is a BIG industry that is growing at pace! It is estimated that the vitamins and dietary supplements industry in Australia grew by 9% in 2012 to reach sales of $1.8 billion (Euromonitor) with revenues of $771 million (Ibisworld). That is big business!
Alot of us are turning to supplements in our diet in an effort to achieve better health, or to overcome minor illnesses or treat deficiencies, but to what detriment are supplements taking the place of real food?
In one way it makes sense that the industry is growing at such a rate. After all, more of us are getting sick than ever before, diseases of chronic illness are becoming more prevalent, we are living longer with illness than ever before and more of us are experiencing intolerances/allergies than ever before. But surely the rapid emergence of a multi billion dollar industry has to be questioned to understand what has really driven this growth?
As someone who has never regularly taken supplements, nor had the need to, I am obviously coming at this discussion from only one perspective and I believe it is very important to remain as impartial as possible. However, I can’t help but think that sometime soon we have to question the amount of supplementation that is now common in the Australian culture. The thing is, we don’t know a lot about the long term effects of supplementation, as the industry really is still so new.
It is important to remember that these are not prescription products that we are dealing with here, these are over the counter, buy-at-your-chemist or health-food-store-along-with-your-chia-seeds-kinda-substances. So that means, I can pack a whooooole lot of supplements into my diet if I care to. And even MORE worrying to me is that I can pack supplements into my child’s diet now if I want to. The emergence of ‘kiddies supplements’ such as vitagummies for children and similar is something I am personally concerned about. Two reasons for this – 1. Why? Why are we supplementing our children? Isn’t it even more important for kids to be eating a healthful diet and getting all the required nutrients from whole foods than supplements? 2. What are we teaching our kids? Are we going to see the first generation of children that “can’t remember never taking a multi everyday”?
Taking higher than recommended doses of some nutrients can potentially be very harmful to health, both directly and indirectly. For example, fat soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E and K can accumulate in your body’s fat stores and can be toxic at high levels. Even some water soluble vitamins can be harmful if taken in high doses unnecessarily – an example here would be fish oil which if taken in large amounts can decrease blood clotting (Better Health), and also vitamin B6, which if taken at high doses can cause painful dermatological lesions and some nerve damage (nih.gov).
Supplements are fabulous when used properly, and that is, when there are additional nutrient needs that may not be met through food (such as pregnancy, high levels of physical training, ill health, ageing etc.), to aid in treatment of deficiencies or other physiological conditions. But the supplement industry is not growing at this rate solely because we are getting sicker, or having more babies, or due to the ageing population or growing intolerances. A large part of is growth is down to the use of supplements by healthy people, in a discretionary way, often, where there is absolutely no need. The industry has no qualms in marketing their products in this way either, and it seems we have no qualms in adhering to these marketing messages.
Some food for thought, excuse the pun 🙂