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Given that the supplement industry is set to be worth £214 billion by 2024, it’s clear that a lot of us are investing in pills and powders. Should we be saving our money?

Do you feel like you’ve got a cold coming on? Pop a zinc pill. A bit run down? Time to up Barocca intake. Want to improve your hair and skin quality? Try a B-vitamin complex. If you’re anything like me, you’ll have a cabinet of supplements for moments like these. But are we wasting our time and money?

For most of us, food can be medicine. It contains everything we need to survive and thrive, from vitamins that make our brains sharp to nutrients that help us to sleep and recover. But not everyone feels like they can access the full gamut of nutrients offered in whole foods. With hectic lifestyles, intense exercise regimes and restrictive moral or religious dietary requirements, many of us take supplements to make up for what we feel we’re lacking. 

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Given that the supplement industry is set to be worth £214 billion by 2024, it’s clear that a lot of us are turning to powders, shakes and pills to get our vitamins. And if you’re one of them, you might be distressed to read the findings of a new report that has concluded that vitamins and supplements are a “waste of money” for most people.

Scientists from Northwestern University say that for non-pregnant, healthy people, there’s not enough evidence to suggest that supplements can prevent serious illness. In a report published in JAMA, Dr Jeffrery Linder, chief of general internal medicine in the university’s department of medicine, wrote: “Patients ask all the time, ‘What supplements should I be taking?’ They’re wasting money and focus thinking there has to be a magic set of pills that will keep them healthy when we should all be following the evidence-based practices of eating healthy and exercising.” 

Experts believe that you can get everything you need from whole foods – and that supplements are a ‘waste of money’ for most healthy people.

If that wasn’t enough of a kick to all who supplement, a clinical professor at the University of Georgia then told Insider that vitamins A, C, B and zinc are the most “useless” supplements to take because most people are already getting enough through their diets. 

So, are we really wasting our hard-earned money on supplementing for nothing?

Are some vitamin supplements ‘useless’?

Reema Patel, registered dietitian and nutritionist for Dietitian and Co, tells Stylist: “Generally, you can get many of the vitamins you need from your diet alone, so there is often little to no need to supplement. Some vitamins are easily obtained from foods that we regularly eat, such as antioxidants (vitamins A, C and E), which are found abundantly in fruits and vegetables. “However there will be some vitamins that need a bit more consideration to obtain enough in the diet.”

Vitamin D, for example, is recommended for people of African, African-Caribbean or South Asian backgrounds or for those who can’t get outdoors much. “And if you’re vegan, there are some important vitamins to consider supplementing that can be hard to find in a vegan diet generally, such as B12.”

Is it pointless taking vitamin C and zinc for a cold?

A 2011 meta-analysis review, published in the Open Respiratory Medicine Journal, that found that zinc lozenges reduced the duration of cold symptoms by 48%. That same year, a Cochrane review looked at 13 randomised placebo-controlled trials that all examined the effect of taking zinc soon after the onset of cold symptoms. And it concluded that there was convincing evidence to suggest that zinc does “significantly reduce both the duration and severity of symptoms”. 

“Some research has shown that having adequate levels of zinc and vitamin C can help shorten the duration of colds, but this does not mean we are able to avoid them completely just by increasing our levels of zinc and vitamin C,” Patel explains. In other words, take zinc if you have a cold, not to prevent a cold.

But, she also says that you’re still better off trying to eat it, rather than supplement: “Vitamin C is generally easily obtainable in the diet from fruits and vegetables, and zinc is readily found from meat, fish, wholegrains and milk as well as nuts and beans, so it is rarely necessary that we need to supplement with these nutrients.” 

In fact, the way we think about colds is probably wrong in general. Dr Ross Perry previously debunked the myth that you can catch a cold in wet weather, explaining that: “Viruses and bacteria cause infections, and these are likely to be transmitted from person to person by inhaling them in the form of air droplets from a sneeze or a cough.” With that in mind, it probably makes sense that simply taking extra vitamins isn’t going to protect you from breathing in someone else’s disease.

Can we get all our nutrients and vitamins from food alone?

“Where possible, we should aim to meet our nutritional requirements from food,” Patel advises. However, if you are someone who really does struggle to eat fruit and vegetables regularly, taking a multivitamin may be helpful to prevent deficiencies.”

If you are vegan, however, then you do really need to think about supplementation – and not just for B12. “Vegans may need to be more aware of certain nutrients such as omega 3 fatty acids, iodine, selenium, iron, calcium and vitamin D, as these nutrients can be harder to obtain from a vegan diet.” It’s worth saying that even then, you can get twice your daily requirement of selenium from a single Brazil nut, walnuts are loaded with omega-3 and pecans are a good source of calcium. But it’s a little harder to find plant sources of iron, iodine and vitamin D.

As ever, chat with your GP before taking a new supplement and it’s worth asking to have your levels checked before trying something new. If you have low energy, you might need to supplement iron, for example, but you’re only going to know if it’s a waste of money or not if you know for certain that you’re anaemic.

TL;DR, not all supplements are a waste of money but we should be aiming for a food-first approach to nutrition.

Images: Getty

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