When it comes to meeting our dietary needs, our first goal should be to achieve our nutritional requirements naturally through our diet.
There are times however when this may not be possible, perhaps due to changes in our eating patterns, dislike of certain foods, increased physical activity levels, illness as well as other factors. In a saturated nutritional supplement market, choosing the right nutritional supplements for you can often be a challenge.
Here, nutritionist Laurann O’Reilly and owner of Nutrition by Laurann, explains how to choose nutrition supplements to meet your individual needs and what to be aware of when buying supplements.
- Diet First - It’s important to assess if in fact you need a nutritional supplement. The purpose of nutritional supplements is to complement our dietary intake and fill in the gaps where we may be deficient and not to replace foods. Remember, great ways to boost our existing diets is through fibre rich wholegrain carbohydrates, good quality lean protein (plant and animal based), healthy fats and oils (such as oily fish, nuts and seeds) and through consuming plenty of fruits and vegetables.
- Health Check - If you have been feeling unwell for a prolonged period of time, it’s always a good idea to arrange an appointment with your GP for a little health check to ensure that you have no underlying medical conditions or to assess for nutritional deficiencies, such as vitamin D or iron.
- When We May Need To Supplement - Obviously getting our nutrients through our diet alone is the ideal scenario, but there are times when we may need a little extra nutritional support for example;
1) Increased Physical Activity Levels - Our overall energy requirement takes into account our physical activity levels both in work (occupational activity) and outside of work. Where these activity levels are extremely high for example in endurance athletes, it may not be possible to meet nutrition requirements exclusively through the diet. For example, a recovery protein supplement and/or extra vitamins or minerals may be required to meet this additional need. Feel free to contact me (contact details below) if you would like an assessment of your nutritional requirements.
2) Illness - When we are unwell, our energy and nutrient requirements may increase as we attempt to fight off infections and deal with the added demands of the illness. It’s important during these times that we at a minimum meet our basic energy requirements, and in some cases a little help through nutrition supplementation may be required.
3) Recovery - We mustn’t underestimate the healing powers of good quality nutrition when recovering from physical activity, illness and in building back up our immune systems. Sometimes in order to aid our recovery we may need to either increase our energy intake and/or the consumption of specific nutrients, which may require additional supplements. Again, an assessment can be done to establish the right recovery strategy for you.
4) Pregnancy and Breastfeeding - Our energy and nutrient requirements increase both during pregnancy and breastfeeding, as we must consume the right amount of energy and nutrients to meet both our own needs as well as that of the child. Whilst much of this energy can be obtained through the diet alone, vitamin and mineral supplementation may be required. For example, the HSE recommends to take a 400 microgram folic acid supplement per day, 3 months prior to and during pregnancy. It’s also important to consume adequate energy, vitamins and minerals whilst breastfeeding. Always consult with your pharmacist or doctor before taking supplements during these times.
5) Aging - As we get older our nutritional requirements change and it’s important to have a balanced diet, rich in good quality foods, vitamins and minerals to maintain good health. For example, for maintaining our bone health as we get older it’s important to be conscious of our calcium and vitamin D intakes which may often need to be supplemented if not being met through the diet.
6) Appetite - There are many factors which affect our appetite and ability to eat, for example stress and illness can have huge effects on this. It’s even more important during these times that we have good quality food. In the case of a low appetite, it’s possible to increase the nutritional density of our meals without increasing the volume for example through additional cheese, or toppings on our meals. In some cases where an appetite is low and we’re still not meeting our requirements, supplements may be required. If you are concerned about your appetite please make an appointment with your GP for an assessment.
7) Limited Diets - There are many factors which can limit the foods we eat for example disliking a wide range of foods, restrictive diets, allergies and intolerances. Limited diets in some cases can prevent us from accessing the spectrum of different types of energy, vitamins and minerals for our bodies to function efficiently and to maintain good health. In these cases, one may need to look at supplementation as a means of preventing nutrition deficiencies. Feel free to contact me (details below) if you need some guidance in this area.
- Read the ingredients - Just like we check the ingredients for the foods we consume, it’s also important to check the ingredient listings on the supplements we buy, for example they may contain synthetic fillers and other ingredients. Just like we ingest food we should consider the supplements that we ingest also.
- Stick To Recognised Brands - If you’ve ever gone to the supplement section of a health store or pharmacy, you may recall the bombardment of different brands and varieties of products. If you ever find yourself in this situation it’s always best to choose recognised brands with an established reputation and a proven track record. If in doubt seek the advice of your pharmacist.
- Medical Interactions - As certain nutrients and vitamins can sometimes interfere with medication it’s always best to check with your GP or pharmacist, just to be safe.
- Understanding The Medicinal Properties - Foods can also hold medicinal properties, for example turmeric, ginger and cinnamon act as natural anti-inflammatories. These can also be purchased in supplement form in higher quantities than we would normally consume them in the diet. Again, always check with your pharmacist to see if these are suitable for you.
- Herbal Remedies - Natural herbal extracts which can come in the form of oils, tablets and tinctures are commonly used to treat certain ailments such as sleep, anxiety and respiratory (lung) function. Many of these are perfectly safe and have been used for thousands of years. It’s important to seek advice when purchasing herbal remedies as some may not be suitable for you or may interact with medication.
- Shopping Online - Many of us shop online to find the best deals and products, however when it comes to supplements it’s important to be cautious when purchasing from unfamiliar websites. For those with medical conditions or taking medications it’s always safer to purchase your supplements at your pharmacy where you can seek reliable and safe medical advice from your pharmacist.
- Research - There are a huge range of supplements available and whilst some are of the highest standard, others may not be and only meet the minimum requirements in terms of quality. Where possible, it’s always best to buy supplements which have research behind them, as this ensures that they have been tested for efficacy and safety.
- Meal Replacers - As mentioned above our first goal should be to achieve our dietary needs through natural foods. Whilst meal replacers are often advertised as convenient or as a means of weight loss, they can often do more harm than good. We must not underestimate the power of good quality and pure foods in maintaining our health and should always opt for these over synthetic meal replacers.
- Weight Loss Supplements Beware - Whilst it can often be difficult to lose weight, many individuals search for the magic pill from which to do so. Unfortunately, these aren’t always safe and can contain ingredients such as stimulants which can increase our heart rate as well as other ingredients which may interfere with medications or have negative side effects. It’s particularly important to take caution when purchasing diet pills online as many are unregulated and may be harmful to your health. Please remember it’s always safest to contact a health professional such as a dietician or nutritionist if you need assistance in losing weight safely.
- Follow the Recommended Intake - It’s always important when taking supplements to follow the recommended intake as stated on the package. Whilst certain vitamins and minerals are safe to take in high amounts others may not be. Again, it’s always safest to stick to the recommended dose or as recommended by your health professional.
- Supplement Subscriptions - Please be aware of individuals who promise you the world and who require you to sign up to a subscription for your vitamins. Remember your nutritional needs and requirements change all the time, we often may need less of one and more of another. You should never enter into a contract for your supplements.
- When To Take Your Vitamins - As some vitamins and minerals are required for the absorption certain nutrients (for example we need vitamin C for the absorption of iron and vitamin D for the absorption of calcium), it’s often best to take your vitamins along with food unless instructed otherwise by a health professional.
Laurann O’Reilly is a qualified and experienced Nutritionist with a BSc. Degree in Human Nutrition from University of Nottingham and a Master’s in Public Health Nutrition from University College Dublin. She has over 10 years’ experience including working community and clinical care, research, personalised nutrition consultations (dealing in healthy eating, weight loss, digestive health and sports nutrition), teaching and developing nutrition courses at FETEC level, nutrition education talks and workshops (corporate wellness, schools, sports teams, public and private talks), previous food manager of the Coeliac Society of Ireland and is part of the roll out team for the Healthy Ireland Smart Start health promotion programme for pre-schools.
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