Recently it was reported in the media that Oxford experts had found that taking supplements of vitamins E and C, and beta-carotene had no effect on the risk of heart disease over a five-year-period. The media, therefore, concluded that taking vitamin and mineral supplements is not necessary if you eat a balanced diet.
Storm in a teacup
This type of reporting could be viewed as irresponsible, because it only gives half the facts and jumps to conclusions without presenting the reader with sufficient information to make a balanced judgement. It is a veritable storm in a teacup which may sell more newspapers and make a sensational story, but does not do the public any good.
Ever since the first vitamins were discovered early in the last century, nutritionists and dieticians have told their patients and the public at large that it is not necessary to take supplements if you have a balanced diet. So there is nothing new in the conclusion the media presented to the public a few weeks ago.
What the media did not state, however, is that countless studies have produced evidence that there are many population groups, especially in countries like South Africa, that suffer from what is known as “subclinical deficiencies” of some, if not all vitamins and minerals. Studies are also showing that certain vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and bioflavonoids can protect the body against a host of so-called “degenerative diseases” (diabetes, heart disease, cancer, arthritis, impaired immunity, Alzheimer’s Disease) and developmental deficits (spina bifida, low birth-weight, poorly developed nervous system and eye problems).
The question of a balanced diet
I believe that the statement “vitamin and mineral supplements are not necessary, if you eat a balanced diet”, is true, but then we must define what a balanced diet is, and each and everyone must find out if they are really eating in a balanced way.
A balanced diet consists of the following:
Unprocessed or whole-grain cereals and starches; fresh fruit and vegetables; milk and dairy products; lean meat, fish and eggs; legumes; poly- or monounsaturated fats and oils, and nuts.
If you eat plenty of these foods, you will probably not require any additional supplements.
Who needs supplements?
Unfortunately many populations and people in certain age groups do not eat in a balanced way. If any of the following factors apply to you, then the chances are good that your diet isn't balanced and that you may require additional vitamins and minerals:
Poverty: Anyone living on, or below, the so-called breadline, most likely doesn't have a balanced diet and doesn't obtain all the protective nutrients we require for optimum health.
Monotonous diets: Populations that subsist on a single refined staple food, like sifted maize meal, polished rice, or white bread, and individuals who eat only some of the foods listed above, don't have a balanced diet.
Eating disorders: People with self-imposed abnormal eating patterns, such as anorexia and/or bulimia, are literally starving themselves to death, and certainly don't have a balanced food intake.
Special diets, such as strict vegetarian or vegan diets, are known to be deficient in certain nutrients such as iron, zinc, and vitamin B12.
Allergy diets: If you are allergic or sensitive to any one of the food groups and have to avoid this food group, your diet is probably unbalanced, e.g. people with milk allergies or intolerance, who have to cut out all milk and dairy products, tend to have calcium and vitamin B deficiencies unless they take the necessary supplements.
Chronic medications: People taking chronic medications often have associated deficiencies because certain medications interfere with the uptake of micronutrients or increase the requirement for them
Impaired digestion: Individuals with impaired digestion - this can range from lack of teeth to bowel resection - in fact any condition that hampers digestion and uptake of food, can lead to deficiencies.
Special groups with increased nutrient needs: Infants, children, teenagers, pregnant and lactating women and the elderly, all have increased nutrient requirements and often don’t have balanced diets, e.g. teenage girls have an increased requirement for iron and calcium, but often avoid milk and dairy products, meat and fish, because they are perpetually trying to lose weight.
The list goes on and on. There are countless examples of people who do need additional vitamin and mineral supplements because they really don’t have balanced diets. So if you do have a balanced diet and are in the peak of health, you certainly don’t need to take supplements. However, if any of the above-mentioned factors apply to you, you may indeed require supplements. - (Dr I.V. van Heerden, DietDoc)
Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Health24.com. Read more of her articles.