Food supplements, between myth and reality
Food supplements do not always get good press, but they help you to perfect your nutritional reserves as part of a healthy and balanced diet. And even if a varied diet is the key to good health, our lifestyle and genetic makeup also determine our general health and nutritional needs. In addition, life has its share of surprises leading to changes in our daily functioning. Therefore, a temporary cure of food supplements makes sense. Their interest increases in the context of specific diets such as vegan diets where certain vitamins such as B12 are missing.
What is the interest of food supplements?
What role do food supplements play for our body?
First, it is important to emphasize and remember that food is a reservoir of exceptional nutrients. Whether it is vitamins, minerals, fibers, or amino acids, all these elements constitute the body’s fuel. Thus, it is recommended to adopt a healthy and balanced diet to provide our body with all the building blocks it needs for its functioning. The more varied the daily diet, the more the body’s nutritional needs will be properly covered.
It is not always easy to adopt a perfectly balanced diet. Lack of time, lack of knowledge of the nutritional content of ingredients, or poor cooking skills are all factors that can lead to sub-optimal nutritional intake. Dietary supplements are thus allies in bringing the nutritional reserves from good to very good and in making the body work to its full potential.
In addition, certain diets or life phases require more attention. For example, in the case of a vegetarian diet, vitamin B12 will be lacking because it comes only from animal sources. Similarly, during pregnancy, certain nutrients will be needed in greater quantities. This is the case, for example, with vitamin B9, which is essential in pre-pregnancy and during the first trimester for the development of the fetus’ nervous system.
How long should I take food supplements?
It is interesting to consider the meaning of the words “food supplement”. As the name indicates, food supplements are there to supplement the diet and thus make up for any deficiencies. Thus, they are not sufficient on their own and do not replace the diet.
These supplements will help the body to cope with a transitory deficit, for example when our body adapts to the change of season or during a temporary fatigue.
A course of dietary supplements must therefore be taken over a specific period. Vitamin cures are only a support and not a food base. It is not recommended to take vitamins daily for long periods of time without medical advice.
It is also recommended not to exceed 3-month cures unless medical advice is given. Indeed, it is necessary to ensure that the body does not get used to being supplemented. Thus, after 3 months of treatment, it is important to respect a pause of 2 to 3 months before starting a new treatment.
What are the criteria for choosing a food supplement?
Everyone is unique and has his own needs. Apart from symptoms or pathologies requiring the care of a health professional, you should always opt for physiological doses that are not harmful to your health. In this sense, be sure to follow the daily dosages recommended by the manufacturer. Unless otherwise advised by a doctor, mixing several food supplements is not optimal. Indeed, risks of overdosing can occur and have harmful consequences for the body.
Similarly, it is important to know that not all forms of vitamins and minerals are equal. Manufacturers are free to choose synthetic, natural, organic forms, etc. In addition, nutrients have forms that are assimilated by the body: this is the bioavailability. A high bioavailability means that the body really assimilates the compounds. In the opposite case (low bioavailability), the compounds are mainly rejected in the urine and have very little impact on the body.
How does the legislative framework ensure consumer safety?
The market of food supplements is very dense, and it is not always easy to find your way around. In Europe, and particularly in Belgium, a strict legislative framework allows to protect the consumer.
The packaging of food supplements must show the nutritional table, i.e., the name of the vitamins, minerals, plants, and other active ingredients used, as well as the quantities and percentage of recommended intake (only for vitamins and minerals).
The list of ingredients
The list of ingredients used must appear on the packaging. The ingredients are listed in descending order according to the quantities used. The name and species of the plants must be clearly indicated as well as the forms of vitamins and minerals used.
The name "food supplement''
The term “food supplement” must be clearly indicated on the packaging. At the same time, it is strictly forbidden to include preventive or curative claims, i.e., messages suggesting that the product will cure an ailment.
Warnings for a good use of the product
It is necessary to have a warning concerning the exceeding of the daily intake as well as a mention asking to keep the product out of reach of children. Finally, as mentioned previously, it should be specified that food supplements are not a substitute for a varied diet.
The NUT number
This is a Belgian identification number assigned by the Federal Public Service of Public Health, Food Chain Safety and Environment. This number guarantees that the product complies with all Belgian regulations. These numbers are always presented in the following form: NUT/ASXXX/XXX or NUT/PLXXX/XXX. The indicator AS stands for “other substances” and PL for “plants” depending on what the product contains. If the product contains only vitamins and minerals, it will be NUT XXXX.
Food supplements are not mandatory. They are however allies to allow the body to function at its full potential. They will allow to complete a varied and balanced diet. Not all food supplements are equal, and it is important to read the packaging correctly to check that the product mentions the elements that are mandatory in Europe. Therefore, for online purchases, be sure to go to trusted sites or the brand of the products.
Key take-home messages
- Food supplements complement the diet
- The diet must be as varied and balanced as possible
- A course of dietary supplements should not exceed 3 months (unless otherwise advised by a doctor)
- Wait 2 to 3 months between two courses of dietary supplements
- Check that the packaging respects the legislative framework in force (nutritional table, doses, NUT number, etc.)
Roussel Michel, Le guide pratique des vitamines, Alpen editions, 2005
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