Dietary supplements: food for thought

In a perfect world we’d all eat nothing but balanced meals. We’d never skip lunch. We’d religiously stick to five fruits and veggies a day, as well as whole grains.
And we wouldn’t gulp down vast quantities of processed fast food crammed with salt, sugar and fat.

Of course, the reality of living in this day and age means a never-ending battle to ensure that we consume the nutrients our bodies need to function properly—proteins, carbohydrates, fats, fibre, vitamins, minerals, amino acids and essential fatty acids.

But there is a way to help keep our bodies nourished while we meet the demands of our hectic lifestyles—dietary or nutritional supplements. Coming in the form of extracts, concentrates, tablets, capsules, liquids and powders, supplements are convenient, easy to take, simple to store and relatively inexpensive.

In recent years the popularity of supplements has grown markedly in South Africa, the result, no doubt, of a general increase in health awareness aided by the growth of fitness centres and better marketing by supplement manufacturers.

Multivitamins are the most popular due to their ability to aid overall health. They are also perceived as being good value. Calcium and mineral supplements, as well as fish oil, are the most commonly used supplements. Protein powder and glucosamine used to be consumed mainly by body builders and athletes, but their use has now become more prevalent among the wider public.

The most popular vitamin supplements, other than vitamins A, C and D, are B1, B2 and B12.

Essential fatty acids such as omega?3 and omega-6 are also in vogue. Their benefits include boosting immune function, lowering cholesterol and helping regulate blood pressure. They are also considered important supplements for adults and children suffering from attention deficit disorder.

Antioxidants such as vitamins A, E and C and selenium have been shown to have many health benefits. They protect the body at a cellular level against so-called “free radicals” and potentially decrease the effects of ageing and the risk of developing cancer.

Supplements gaining acceptance
Mineral supplements are also gaining acceptance. Chromium, for instance, is believed to enhance the action of insulin, which is beneficial to people with type 2 diabetes. The use of symptom-specific supplements is also becoming more widespread. Herbal and plant supplements that are growing in popularity include:

  • Echinacea: taken as a tonic and a detoxicant, it is also believed to have anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and skin healing properties;

  • Garlic: it reportedly has antibiotic and antioxidant properties, helps ailments such as acne and high cholesterol, and can be used as a mosquito repellent;

  • Ginseng: it is believed to reduce mental stress and anxiety, stimulate the immune and nervous systems, treat diabetes and lower cholesterol levels;

  • Ginkgo biloba: among its claimed benefits are protection from damage caused by free radicals, prevention of blood clotting and stimulation of blood circulation; and

  • Evening primrose oil: rich in vitamin E, it is taken for its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, and for ailments ranging from menstrual cramps and menopausal disorders to skin problems and weight loss.

And don’t dismiss herbal remedies. In France and Germany 30% to 40% of all medical doctors rely on herbal preparations as their primary medicines. In China, with its holistic approach to healthcare, herbal remedies have been all the rage for thousands of years.

The way most of us live our lives—that hurly-burly, stress-inducing pace—makes it virtually impossible to avoid some nutritional deficiencies. So it’s good to know we can still add nourishment to our diets through quality supplements.

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