Every day we make choices affecting our health. We are challenged by busy lifestyles, environmental threats and poor-quality foods. To our rescue, there are many “quick fixes” available on the market. I used to believe that dietary supplements are “the solution”. I consumed pills and powders just as if they were candy. But one day I started to question the benefit of consuming those products…
The dietary supplements market in Europe
Dietary supplements can improve human health but only through conscious consumption. In order to make conscious decisions, I had to get a better understanding of the European dietary supplements market, which was valued at $14.95 billion in 2019 and is projected to reach $33.80 billion by 2027. Three of the biggest supplements manufacturing companies on the European market are Amway, GlaxoSmithKline and Bayer.
Nowadays dietary supplements are everywhere and for everything, but they usually lack professional tailoring. We all have seen supplement advertisements, know at least one public person or social media influencer promoting certain substances or creating their own supplement brand aimed at “improving” health, boosting energy, enhancing weight loss etc. This is certainly true in my home country, Poland – a country where about 19 million people (i.e. half the population) take dietary supplements and where the dietary supplements market grows at the highest rate in Europe. (No wonder why I became a supplement enthusiast!)
What about laws and regulations?
Supplements may have a lower amount of active ingredients than stated on the package, so probably the main substance I was consuming for all these years was several grams of maize starch a day. On the other hand, the dose of certain active substances may be too high in certain supplements, which is not good either as it can lead to serious side-effects. Also, dietary supplements can contain unhealthy additives, like food colourings, which have negative effects on health. Of course, dietary supplements are regulated by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in terms of the substances they contain. EFSA authorises substances and their recommended maximum daily dosage allowed for consumption. However, monitoring, safety and doses of substances in dietary supplements are not rigorously checked by the EFSA. Since dietary supplements are considered as food, it is the responsibility of the manufacturers, importers, suppliers or distributors to ensure the safety of such products placed on the market. Laboratory substance testing can be done by third parties on producers’ request. (Of course, not every brand will do so…)
Therefore, consumers are not always aware of what they use exactly. Moreover, EU member states have great autonomy in deciding which substances are allowed for over-the-counter or prescription sales. A great example of this is melatonin – a hormone synthesised in the pineal gland, responsible for coordinating the biological clock, regulating circadian rhythms – used for better sleep and treating insomnia. In Sweden and Denmark, even a 1mg dose is sold only with prescription, whereas in Poland and France it is available over the counter. Such differences between European countries contribute to buying dietary supplements from abroad, also from outside the EU, where the supplements market tends to be even less regulated.
Can you “supplement” a healthy lifestyle?
Supplements will not solve the underlying causes of health problems. Having that in mind, I started listening to my body carefully but understanding causes of bothersome symptoms was not easy after years of being taught how to neglect them. Thus, I recommend seeing a doctor or a qualified dietician to get evidence-based advice. Your GP can do annual check-ups to monitor your health, using simple tests like checking your blood pressure or blood tests. This data, rather than listening to a stranger presenting sponsored content on the Internet, gave me solid grounds for both taking certain supplements and implementing lifestyle changes.
For about seven years, I have analysed and tested countless supplement brands and their products. I got to know that studies on effectiveness of dietary supplements are not required. Supplement brands usually claim their products’ effectiveness on other studies done exclusively on a particular active substance or tested solely on animals.
Is there anything else you can do for your health?
Letting go of “quick fixes” and getting enough rest, physical activity and proper nutrition DAILY needs to be emphasised and cultivated. Although I am continuously bombarded with information about how many products are deprived of nutrients, full of pesticides and animal products consisting high levels of antibiotics, I still manage to have a balanced diet – tailored to my needs and providing enough energy, essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and let’s not forget, culinary pleasure.
Conversely, taking popular multivitamins or consuming all your pills at once, swallowing them with coffee or grapefruit juice can result in nothing more than flushing your money down the toilet. Not only because they might not be thoroughly assessed but also due to the fact that many substances, vitamins and minerals behave in a competitive way and need synergic counterparts to be absorbed well, not to mention that they can interact with consumed drugs.
Therefore, I advocate for “eating the rainbow”. Fulfilling your daily macro- and micronutrient needs through EATING FOOOD is not only far more enjoyable than swallowing several pills but also more sustainable and cost-efficient. Be a conscious consumer, do not let disinformation mislead you. Supplementation needs to be individually tailored to different ages, sexes, lifestyles, genetics and the environments we live in. Cautious, evidence-based supplementation can be a helpful tool for maintaining health and can even become cost-effective for health care systems. Therefore, for good supplement and dietary guidance, check EFSA’s and Food Supplements Europe publications.
When is it okay to take dietary supplements?
Nonetheless, dietary supplements can be necessary and effective in certain cases like:
– not being able to ensure a complete spectrum of macro- or microelements through your diet (e.g., vegans supplementing vitamin B12)
– mineral or vitamin deficiency (blood testing recommended at the GP’s)
– certain diseases (e.g., osteoporosis treatment supported with calcium, magnesium and vitamin D3)
– taking medication depriving from certain vitamins or minerals (e.g., metformin taken for diabetes deprives one of B vitamins)
– intensive workouts / enhancement of athletic performance (e.g., electrolytes)
– preparing for and during pregnancy (e.g., vitamin B9, omega3 fatty acids)
– lactation (e.g., iodine)
– living in a demanding climate (e.g., the darkness of Northern Europe requiring vitamin D3 or the humidity and heat of Southeast Asia requiring hydration with enough electrolytes).
If you do need (or really want to take) supplements, get as much information about the product and its manufacturer as possible and discuss it with your GP and/or a registered dietician to be sure that you make a proper decision. But before you reach for the next supplement, do reflect carefully whether it is worth it. As mentioned above, instead of pursuing health fads and “quick fixes”, focus on long-term solutions.
Remember, we only live once, and we only have one body and mind to take care of.