Should we be taking supplements – and what?

Confused by conflicting advice? Find out why you may need supplements, which ones are most popular, and how to make sure you get the best from your choice.

If you want to start a debate, ask a few people whether or not you should be taking vitamins or supplements. And then, if you’re still hungry for discussion, ask which ones! You’re not alone if you walk away confused by the mixed responses.

Amanda Weber, a registered dietician based in Somerset West, believes that “although supplements should never replace a square meal, they do make reaching optimal health achievable”. She gives a range of reasons why someone may not be getting all they need from their food:

  • Food is not always grown under optimal circumstances which affects the quality of its nutrients.
  • Food is often preserved in cold storage for long periods of time which reduces its nutrients.
  • A person may have a specific nutritional requirement related to their age, health condition, activity or diet, for example:
    • Those who are trying to conceive or are already pregnant
    • Vegans and vegetarians
    • Extreme athletes
    • Those with specific medical conditions like Crohn’s disease
    • Those with an intolerance, e.g. lactose

If you suspect you have a vitamin or mineral deficiency, it’s always a good idea to take any worrying symptoms to your healthcare professional. They can determine if you’re right, examine your diet and recommend supplements if necessary. Amanda finds that many of her adult patients with good general health, benefit from the following supplements:

  • Probiotics play a vital role in keeping the gut healthy which benefits the immune function – modern diets seldom contain enough.
  • Omega 3 is an essential oil important for heart and brain health. It’s found in flax seed, walnuts and oily fish – which are rarely eaten often enough, and so supplementing can be important.
  • Vitamin B complex is a group of vitamins that play an important role in cell metabolism. It’s harder for vegans and vegetarians to get enough Vitamin B12 (which keeps your red blood cell count up and aids the central nervous system).
  • Calcium is necessary for building bones and making our muscles contract and it’s hard to get enough without supplementation.
  • Vitamin C reduces cortisol levels which, in the case of chronic stress, can become too high and damaging.

If you do find you need a supplement, Amanda has some general advice to make sure you get the most from your product:   

  • Buy a reputable brand – it may be more expensive but its bioavailability – the proportion of the supplement that the body absorbs – will be higher.
  • Don’t supplement in isolation, for example for vitamin B12, use a B complex or multi vitamin.
  • Most supplements are best taken in the morning with food and a darker colour urine doesn’t mean that your supplement is simply being excreted.
  • Store as indicated on the product – often away from light and heat.
  • Don’t stop too early – nutrients take time to work, so only expect them to work after four to six weeks.

It’s important to know that it can be dangerous to take too much of a supplement – so never feel that popping extra pills will cancel out junk food or supercharge you when you’re tired.

But when you’re battling to get enough of something through your diet, as Amanda puts it, “supplementation can be your health insurance”.


Choosing the right medical aid is no joke, but we’ll leave you smiling.