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Fact File - Supplements

There are different, often personal reasons why we may choose to take supplements, but usually to achieve good health. According to research by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in 2008, approximately a third of people in the UK report to take some vitamin, mineral or dietary supplement on most days, and about 15% reported having taken a “high dose” supplement in the last 12 months.



In 2009 the market for dietary supplements and vitamins was worth more than £670 million in the UK. This fact sheet explores some of the common reasons why we should not or whether we should take supplements and the basis of a healthy diet.


Popular supplements and claims – should we be taking these?

Mixed messages from friends and the media unsurprisingly make us confused about whether we need them or not. The most popular supplements include:

  • Vitamin and multivitamins
  • Weight loss
  • Supplements for preventing and treating colds
  • Glucosamine, ginkgo and ginseng for ageing
  • Fish oils for the heart or brain health

Everyone is individual and therefore there cannot be a clear answer about whether we should or should not take supplements, however professional bodies such as The British Nutrition Foundation advises anyone concerned about whether their diet is providing enough nutrients to discuss this with a health professional. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) do not recommended the use of supplements unless the individual falls into certain groups.


Who would benefit from supplements?

Certain groups of people may benefit from supplements, these however are recommended or prescribed by a healthcare professional. These include the elderly, pregnant women and children between six months and five years old. There are also certain medical conditions that may require supplementation, but your GP will recommend these. Outside these groups, you could well be spending your money unnecessarily.


Supplements Versus Diet

Any vitamin or mineral supplement should not be used to substitute a balanced diet. A variety of foods not only provides you with the nutrients you need and in the correct balance, but gives you more micronutrients such as, unique antioxidants that supplements cannot provide. However, if you do decide to take them, never exceed the daily requirement and think whether you really need them as many are expensive and have no proven benefit. In excess, or in some groups of people they can even be harmful. For example, fish liver oil should not be taken by pregnant women as it contains vitamin A. Also, Vitamin E supplements should be avoided by people with cardiovascular disease as it can increase the risk of further heart attacks. However, what we do know is that a healthy, balanced diet can provide all the nutrients you need, unless you are in one of the groups mentioned who may benefit.


Healthy Diet

For a diet which provides all the nutrients you need for good health, aim to include the following food groups:

Fruit & Vegetables

  • This food group should be the largest part of your diet.
  • Include at least five portions of different types and colours of fruit and vegetables a day and aim for seasonal, fresh or frozen when possible. Different ones will provide a diverse source of nutrients.
  • One portion is around 80g. In practical terms this is the equivalent of a medium sized fruit, such as an apple, a ‘cereal’ bowl of salad and 3 tablespoons of vegetables.


Starchy Foods

  • A rich source of carbohydrate needed for energy.
  • For each meal, base some of your meal on this food group, but aim for the whole grain varieties.
  • Whole grain varieties are not only higher in minerals and vitamins but  are also a richer source of fibre than refined versions which is important for gut health as well as many other health benefits.


Meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds and pulses (beans, chickpeas and lentils)

  • A rich source of protein which is essential for growth and repair. It is also a good source of vitamins and minerals, such as iron, zinc and B vitamins.
  • Fish should be oily which is rich in omega-3. Oily fish includes salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines and fresh tuna.
  • Pulses are a great alterative to meat, they are high in fibre and can count as one of your 5-A-Day.


Milk and dairy foods (yoghurt, cheese and dairy alternatives)

  • This group is a good source of protein and calcium which plays an important role in bone health.
  • Choose plain low-fat varieties and include a couple of portions a day to help meet your calcium requirement. If you choose dairy alternatives, check that they are enriched with calcium.
  • Foods such as fish, pulses, seeds and green leafy vegetables are also good sources of calcium.


Foods containing fat and/or sugar

  • These are often highly processed foods or drinks. Aim to limit or avoid these altogether.


This factsheet is intended for adults as a general guide only and not a substitute for professional advice or a diagnosis. If you are on certain medication or suffer from a medical condition, seek individual advice from your health care professional. Date produced December 2015.


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