Should you be taking that supplement? Medical research scientist Bridget Carmady reports on four of our most popular pills.
Associated with improved brain, heart, joint, bowel and eye health, omega-3 fatty acids are an important part of keeping your brain and body healthy.
Most fish oil capsules contain 1000mg fish oil, of which 300mg is omega-3 fatty acids. While there is no official recommended daily intake (RDI) for omega-3, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) suggests a daily intake of 160mg for men, 90mg for women and 110–145mg for pregnant or lactating women. That equates to taking one fish oil capsule a day for general health, although you may be prescribed higher amounts for specific health conditions.
When to take fish oil: Studies suggest that fish oil supplements are a sensible addition to your diet if you have cardiovascular disease, arthritis, asthma or a mental health disorder, such as depression or ADHD. They’re probably also not a bad idea for general health, especially if you can’t be convinced to eat fish!
When you shouldn’t: Studies show that you’ll get a lot more bang for your buck by eating two serves of fish each week (such as a 150g piece of salmon and a can of tuna) because we absorb a lot more omega-3 directly from fish, rather than fish oil supplements. In fact, just one 150g piece of farmed Atlantic salmon contains up to 3000mg omega-3s – 10 times the amount found in a capsule!
Fish oil supplements are generally considered safe for people with fish or seafood allergies, as the proteins which cause the allergic reaction are removed in the manufacturing process, but be sure to consult with your doctor before taking any supplements. As yet, no studies have reliably shown that people with a fish or seafood allergy will not have a reaction to fish oil capsules.
Hot tip: Other types of omega-3 supplements, such as krill oil (which is being touted as a more sustainable alternative) or micro-algae (a vegan option) might be a better choice for you if you have allergies. You can find them in health food stores.
Vitamin C is one of the body’s most important nutrients, crucial to the growth, development and the repair of tissue and cartilage. It also protects against free radical damage. The amount of vitamin C in supplements varies, but most contain around 500mg – which is equal to about 2 1/2 cups capsicums, 6 1/2 cups strawberries or 6 cups broccoli.
The RDI for vitamin C is 45mg for adult men and women. Given that just one orange will meet the daily requirement, it’s not too hard to meet your body’s needs.
When to take vitamin C: If you have a cold, Vitamin C is has been shown to help reduce its severity and duration – though you’ll need to take a relatively large dose (2000mg each day). Vitamin C can also be a good idea in the instances where you don’t have access to fresh fruit and vegetables – for example, when travelling in remote parts of the world.
When you shouldn’t: Most of us get enough vitamin C. Studies have also shown there’s no point taking supplements to help prevent a cold, either – it only helps you recover faster. So most of us don’t need to take vitamin C.
Hot tip: Look for vitamin C tablets that contain bioflavonoids. These are powerful antioxidants that increase the action of the vitamin.
Most calcium supplements are not sold in doses higher than 500mg, as the body doesn’t absorb calcium in amounts larger than this. For both men and women, the RDI for calcium is 1000mg – equivalent to 2 cups milk (either cow’s or calcium-fortified soy) plus a 200g tub of yoghurt.
When to take calcium supplements: Daily calcium requirements jump to 1300mg for women during certain life stages, such as pregnancy, breastfeeding and after menopause, as well as for men over 70 years of age, and for all teenagers – the equivalent of four to five serves of dairy each day!
Calcium supplementation has also been shown to help reduce the risk of osteoporosis, bone fractures, kidney stones and, if it’s in your family’s history, colorectal cancer. If you’re at risk of any of these, supplements might be a good idea.
When you shouldn’t: If you’re already getting three to four serves of dairy each day, you probably don’t need calcium supplements.
Hot tip: Most calcium supplements contain calcium carbonate, so they should be taken with food, as they need stomach acids to help break them down. If you want a supplement that can be taken without food, choose one made with calcium citrate.
Zinc is beneficial in a number of ways, including helping clear up eczema, helping wounds heal faster, and maintaining a healthy immune system. It is also essential to a healthy reproductive system. Men and women only require a small amount of zinc – with an RDI of 8–14mg for healthy men and women. Therefore, supplements only contain small amounts of the mineral (5–25g). For comparison, one large oyster or 160g steak provides 8mg zinc. For vegetarians and vegans, having one cup of chickpeas or baked beans and a small handful (30g) of almonds or cashews each day will help you meet requirements.
When to take zinc: Zinc is most readily available in meat, eggs and seafood, so those who don’t eat these foods, such as vegans, should consider zinc supplementation. People with conditions that can cause poor nutrient absorption (such as IBS and coeliac disease), may also need to supplement their diet with zinc. Research has shown that zinc can reduce the severity and duration of a cold, so it may be worth taking if you feel a cold coming on.
When you shouldn’t: Like calcium, you shouldn’t take a supplement if you are already meeting your RDI through your diet. Zinc can be toxic in large doses and the NHMRC recommends no more than 40mg per day for adult men and women.
Hot tip: Zinc is extremely important for fertility, especially sperm health, so be sure to get your RDI of zinc if you are planning to start a family.
Supplements can be money well spent, whether you need them to help with an existing health issue (eg. fish oil for arthritis), or to prevent health problems from cropping up when you’re not able to get enough of a particular mineral from your diet (e.g. calcium to ward off osteoporosis). Ultimately, a balanced diet should provide you with sufficient nutrients to keep you in good health. But if you need a little extra insurance, it’s worth noting that you get what you pay for with supplements – so paying a little extra is often worthwhile. Consider it an investment in your health.
Healthy Food Guide recommends
Blackmores Fish Oil 1000 $17.94 Good value for money, and tested for mercury, to make sure it’s completely safe to take.
Swisse Odourless Fish Oil $24.71 Sustainably sourced and free from environmental toxins, these capsules don’t have a fishy after-taste or odour.
Cenovis Sugarless C 500mg $6.44 These great tasting tablets contain 500mg vitamin C. Because they’re chewable, they’re easily absorbed by the body.
Ethical Nutrients Extra C $26.95 Available in both tablet and powder form, this supplement contains a highly absorbent mix of vitamin C and other minerals, to help it get to work faster.
Swisse Calcium + Vitamin D $15.95 Unlike many other calcium supplements, these tablets contain both calcium citrate, the most readily-absorbed type of calcium, and vitamin D to assist uptake into the body.
Blackmores Bio Calcium Chewable $12.95 These are also easily absorbed, which can be a big advantage for older Australians and those with digestive troubles. They also contain vitamin D, to facilitate uptake into the body.
Cenovis Zinc Plus 25mg $7.19 In addition to zinc, this also contains magnesium, which is essential for maintaining a healthy immune system.
Ethical Nutrients Zinc Fix $22.95 A highly absorbent and concentrated form of zinc, this supplement comes in powder form, in great-tasting orange and raspberry flavours. Like the Cenovis Zinc product, this also contains magnesium.