The hype over dietary supplements continues to drive their consumption upwards. Within attractive packages and containers, some manufacturers have labelled them ‘organic’ simply to attract customers keen on inorganic chemicals. Although these food enhancers contain vital nutrients needed to promote proper growth and development of the human body, there are concerns that just like medicine, dietary supplements could be harmful once abused.
“The risk is higher for those who make it a habit to use them frequently. It should be understood that the body has a self regulating mechanism and from proper nutrition, it can derive all the nutrients it needs,” says Kibagabaga Hospital nutritionist, Isaac Bikorimana.
Further, according to Bikorimana, food supplements are only needed by certain groups considered vulnerable for purposes of providing nutrients that would result into serious defects when absent in the diet.
“Pregnant women and infants need certain nutrients and health workers usually prescribe some food supplements during antenatal visits. For instance, during pregnancy women receive vitamin supplements. Also folic acid (synthetic vitamin B9) is crucial at this stage since this protects the body against birth defects such as spina bifida,” he says.
The difference between ordinary nutrients obtained in food and synthetic supplements is that the latter contain concentrated sources of nutrients or other substances with a nutritional or physiological effect, whose purpose is to improve the normal diet. These are then marketed in form of pills, tablets, capsules or liquids in measured doses.
Increased fractures and heart defects
Whether supplements correct nutritional deficiencies or maintain proper body functioning, there is enough evidence that links excessive intake to serious side effects.
An earlier study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that calcium supplements don’t reduce fracture rates in older women, and may even increase the rate of hip fractures. Unfortunately, many older people still consider supplements rich in calcium important with an impression that intake could slow down ageing.
Another study that involved 24,000 men and women aged 35–64 published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in 2012 found that those who used calcium supplements had a 139 per cent greater risk of heart attack during the 11-year study period. However, intake of calcium from food did not increase the risk.
Balanced meals safer
According to Joseph Uwiragiye, a nutritionist at University Teaching Hospital in Kigali (CHUK), regular balancing of the diet is enough to cater for the body’s demands and this should relieve all sorts of nutrient deficiency.
He explains that for the same reason, foods low in certain compounds are fortified with nutrients during their manufacture but this follows the recommended standards.
“Taking in a regular balanced diet would ensure that the body uses its mechanism to obtain nutrients in essential amounts required for proper tissue development. A combination of fruits, vegetables, carbohydrates and protein sources would ensure a health supply of nutrients,” says Uwiragiye.
He also warns of poor practices that force individuals to consume supplements rich in mineral salts such as calcium as a source of unwanted deformations.
“Normally, hardening of soft tissues occurs in the formation of bones but abnormal accumulation of calcium salts in soft body areas could result into unnecessary hardening,” he adds.
Bikorimana maintains that using supplements daily should only be made for those with limited access to nutritious foods, warning that it is extremely damaging to use supplements regularly in individuals who can access nutritious foods daily.
“There are some people who may not have access to enough nutritious food. Still under the guidance of health professionals, these can be allowed to access dietary supplements frequently,” he advises.
From Sub-Saharan Africa to Europe, food supplements are becoming part of household commodities because of the many advantages associated with them. However, proper use requires prescription and recommendations from trained health workers.