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Supplements. A waste of money?

Supplements. A waste of money?

Many of us take supplements to make up for a less-than-ideal diet. But recent research suggests that we're wasting our money as they confer no real health benefits. Is it time to ditch the multivitamins?

We all know the official advice: Eat fresh food that's in season, cook from scratch, and make sure you're getting your 5-a-day. Follow these guidelines and you should get all the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients you need to protect you from all sorts of illnesses and help you to lead a happy, healthy life. But in our hectic modern lives, achieving a balanced diet can feel like an insurmountable challenge. Breakfast is a cereal bar washed down with a large café latte; lunch consists of a sandwich and a packet of crisps at your desk, and by the time you get home from work the temptation to cave in to a ready meal or a takeaway is overwhelming.

You have every reason to suspect that your diet isn't providing you with the nutrients your body needs. So it seems sensible to supplement what you're eating with a multivitamin tablet, just to be on the safe side. There's a vast range to choose from, promising all sorts of health benefits, and there's comfort in knowing that you're getting what you need, even if your diet isn't ideal.

Sadly, it turns out that compensating for a less than ideal diet is not that simple. An article published in the Annals of Internal Medicine last month suggests that supplements are a waste of money and could do more harm than good. So do we have to stop looking for shortcuts when it comes to consuming a healthy diet?

About the study

Researchers from the University of Warwick and the John Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore reviewed three major research papers to examine the effects of taking supplements. The studies incorporated more than half a million people in total. They found that taking supplements did not reduce mortality overall. Nor did it have any beneficial effects on cognitive decline or heart disease. The researchers concluded that, not only do supplements not have any demonstrable health benefits – they might actually cause harm.

It was argued that the widespread perception of having an inadequate diet has been directly manufactured by the producers of supplements. In other words, however unhealthy your diet might seem to you, you're probably getting the nutrients you need and shouldn't let people bent on selling you a product convince you otherwise.

The NHS largely concurred with these findings, stating that, with the exception of folic acid for women who are hoping to conceive a baby and vitamin D for children under the age of 5, supplements would provide an unnecessary surplus of vitamins and minerals to the average diet.

Five ways to boost your diet without resorting to supplements

Any advice about alternatives to supplements needs to take into account that they are often a quick fix for people who simply don't feel like they have the time to eat more healthily. So it's not much use being told to cook everything from scratch and spend hours wandering around our local farmers' market buying local seasonal produce, however good for our health that may be. We need options that are going to be just as quick and convenient as supplements, but with real health benefits. It is in this spirit that we offer the five tips below.

  • Drink more water. Nothing beats keeping your body well hydrated, and downing a glass of water takes almost no time at all. Tap water is fine but you can branch out into herbal teas if you like, and even tea and coffee count towards your daily fluid intake.
  • Eat a handful of nuts. Not only will the high protein content fill you up, but they're a packed with vitamins and minerals. Replace your daily packet of crisps with nuts, have a handful at breakfast, or keep them to hand for that afternoon energy slump. It takes minimal effort and your body will thank you for it.
  • Grab an apple. Or a pear. Or some carrot sticks. Having fresh fruit and veg for snacks or at breakfast takes minimal preparation and is cheap and convenient, so that you'll reach your 5 a day with hardly any effort.
  • Get outside for ten minutes. Yes, it's all about our friend vitamin D, not to mention the general feel-good factor of a bit of fresh air. A bit of sunlight on your face and hands can achieve results that capsule manufacturers can only dream of.

Supplements: The end of the story?

It certainly sounds like this is one of the final nails in the coffin for the supplements industry. But is it likely to have an effect on the behaviour of the average consumer? Do you take supplements? Which ones? Are you going to change what you're taking on the basis of this study?