To Supplement or Not?

By Ng Hooi Lin
Translated by Syharn Shen
Photo by Huang Shi-ze

Taking supplements for nutrients that our bodies don’t lack will not make us healthier. On the contrary, they may even harm our health. A nutritionist weighs in on this with her professional advice.

At a gathering, a friend noticed that while I smiled and laughed, I yawned a lot too. After asking how I was doing lately, she told me, “Since you don’t eat meat, I’ll buy you iron supplements.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle in response. I pointed out to her that nutritional supplements can only help those who don’t eat adequately or who can’t absorb enough nutrients from their diet. “For example, vegans don’t eat eggs, drink milk, or consume dairy products, so they may not have a reliable source of Vitamin B12 from their plant-based diet. In this case, supplements can be taken.”

Many people, like my warmhearted friend, are eager to buy supplements for their family or friends to boost their nutritional intake. The common idea that taking supplements will only help you is deeply ingrained in many people’s minds, especially among the older generation.

For example, I accidentally overheard one elderly woman saying to another at a shopping center: “I recommend you try the iron supplement I’m taking. People our age need to protect our brains, or we’ll likely get dementia. If that happens, no amount of money in our bank accounts will help.”

But the idea that taking supplements automatically must be good for you is actually a misconception. Taking too many supplements for nutrients that you don’t need doesn’t promote your health at all.

Supplementing for deficiencies

When some people experience constant fatigue or skin paleness, they proceed to take iron supplements without doing a blood test first. I find this concerning. When I hear of this or similar situations, I advise people not to try to be a doctor themselves. In fact, the first thing you should do when you experience symptoms of anemia is visit a doctor and get your blood tested to confirm if you really have the condition.

Even if you do suffer from anemia, iron supplements aren’t the be-all and end-all. Not all cases of anemia result from iron deficiency; that’s why taking iron supplements doesn’t necessarily help with the condition. Yet, whenever I tell others about this, most people just stare in disbelief.

If someone on a vegan diet, for example, doesn’t carefully plan their day-to-day meals, they may not get sufficient amounts of vitamin B12, which can also lead to tiredness, weakness, and anemia. If someone with anemia lacks vitamin B12 rather than iron, how will taking iron supplements help improve the condition? Moreover, because iron is not readily expelled from the body, over-supplementing over a long period of time can actually harm one’s health.

Postmenopausal women only need eight to ten milligrams of iron per day, an amount that can be easily absorbed from their daily diet. As a result, taking supplements for iron is often not necessary. Pregnant women need iron not only for their own body, but also for the baby they carry, so they need about 15 to 45 milligrams of iron, depending on the stage of pregnancy. Obstetricians usually recommend iron supplements to pregnant women for this reason.

For those with a true iron deficiency, it’s important that they get their iron supplements prescribed by their doctor. For maximum absorption, it’s best to take iron supplements on an empty stomach, with water rather than milk, as the calcium in milk hinders the body’s absorption of iron. For similar reasons, avoid taking iron supplements with coffee and tea. Some people suggest taking iron supplements with fruit juices as they are rich in vitamin C, which enhances iron absorption. While it’s true that vitamin C does help the body absorb the nonheme iron found in whole grains and legumes, studies have shown that the iron contained in supplements is easily absorbed by the body anyway. Thus, iron supplements can be taken and well absorbed, taken with fruit juices or not.

As long as we follow a varied and balanced diet, we can basically get all the nutrients our bodies need. There is no benefit to taking iron supplements when our body doesn’t lack iron, and doing so may even end up harming us. We only have one body. Let us take good care of it by treating it right!


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