Supplementing the worried well

Judith Wills / 28 February 2014

Diet and wellbeing blogger Judith Wills wonders why we are all so keen to take vitamins, despite medical research findings.

Around half of the USA population and a third of us in the UK take vitamin and mineral supplements – and yet more and more research is being released that appears to show that much of this pill-munching has little if any benefit for our health, and may actually cause harm.

In the last few weeks alone, research in the USA has found that supplements have little effect on preventing either cancer or heart disease. Other scientific trials have recently found that multivitamins can raise the risk of miscarriage, that vitamins C and E can spoil the good effects of stamina-building exercise, that vitamin E can increase the risk of lung and prostate cancer and zinc supplements may exacerbate joint pain.

And it's long been known that most of the £4 billion worth of supplements sold each year in the UK is sold to the 'worried well' rather than to people who might reap some benefit from them, i.e. those who eat a nutritionally poor diet (who are often in any case the people who can least afford expensive supplements anyway).

Although I do pop a few pills most days, I've never used multivitamins/minerals and never intend to – largely because there has been evidence going back decades that the body finds it hard to absorb and use vitamins and minerals in pill form – it wants its nourishment in the form of proper food. This is partly because most nutrients work together in the body to produce beneficial effects, not in isolation. For example, vitamin C in food helps the iron in food to be absorbed, so a steak with a large mixed salad is a great combination, for example. Very many foods, especially plant foods, contain thousands of compounds, or phytochemicals, which can boost the effects of other nutrients and help beat disease. Attempts at bottling these plant chemicals to help keep us healthy have, by and large, not been very successful.

The truth is there are few miracle cures or magic shortcuts to good health. And there are certainly few, if any, safe supplements that can help you lose weight.

So which pills do I use? I take omega-3s, as the weight of evidence for their worth is quite high, especially to help with lowering blood pressure, heart disease prevention and for eye health. But I make sure to take a brand that contains no toxins, which some cheaper omega-3 sources can do. I currently take magnesium which can relax the muscles and help you get a good night's sleep. And I take co-enzyme Q10, mainly as it is brilliant at keeping my gums healthy but can also help boost stamina when you get older. And I always take my pills with food to help absorption.

Apart from that, I rely on food. Old-fashioned, I know. But maybe a sensible choice.

News I've started trying to meditate! Have never been a mystic, yoga sort of person but with this current obsession with Mindfulness, I thought I'd give it a try – another tool, hopefully, to get me calm and positive and in a better frame of mind for sticking to the old diet. I'll let you know what I do, and how it goes, next week. Having just found out that sitting on one's bottom for much of the day when you are over 60 doubles the risk of disability, I'm now off out for a walk, which will, so USA research tells me, mend my brain and improve my memory.

Ate for lunch:

Carrot, lentil and lemon soup

It's still soup season but now it's just about March, our soups at home are getting a bit less hearty. For a change from our so-thick-you-can-stand-a-spoon-in-it blended green lentil soup, we made Mary's Carrot and Red Lentil soup which tastes quite delicate with a citrus kick. You just soften a chopped large onion and 2 cloves of chopped garlic in a little groundnut oil, then add a medium waxy potato and two carrots, all diced, to the pan with 175g red lentils, a heaped teaspoon of whole cumin seeds and stir it all around for a few minutes. Then pour in a litre of vegetable stock and simmer for 30 minutes or until everything is cooked through. Add the juice of half a lemon, some thin lemon slices and plenty of fresh coriander leaves to serve. The lentils kind of disintegrate, thickenly the soup very slightly. This will serve 4.

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