`Our food should be our medicine and our medicine should be our food`


 Widely considered to be the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates could not have stressed more the importance of a balanced diet in human health. Almost all ancient cultures approached the act of obtaining nutrition with a reverence bordering on worship, thus emphasizing the fact that nutrition was the foundation of a sound body. Infact many cultures are still recognised for their distinctive cuisine.

With distances shrinking and life becoming faster-paced, traditional ingredients and ways of cooking have been put on the ‘back burner’ paving the way for supplementing the diet by merely ‘popping a pill’ spawning the multi-billion dollar dietary supplement industry.


Why Supplement?

By definition, nutritional or dietary supplements are manufactured products intended to supplement the diet by providing nutrients either extracted from food sources or those that are synthetic in order to increase the quantity of their consumption.

They can include vitamins, minerals, herbs, meal supplements, sports nutrition products, natural food supplements and fibre, fatty acids, amino acids, plant pigments etc., while most healthy adults eating a varied diet do not need nutritional supplements, they may be recommended in the following groups:

  1. Age 50 or older
  2. Pregnant women or women trying to conceive
  3. People following diets that exclude entire food groups
  4. People with poor appetite or difficulty obtaining nutritious food.
  5. Medical conditions affecting digestion and assimilation like chronic diarrhoea, food allergies or intolerance, diseases of the liver, gallbladder, pancreas or intestines.
  6. People who have undergone digestive tract surgery thus, affecting nutrition.



Dietary supplements may be classified into the following types:

  1. Vitamins: The commonest dietary supplements, 13 of which are required by humans in their diet. Most of these are related groups of molecules, the chief ones being A, D, E, K, C B1, B2 B3, B5, B6, B7, B12 and folate.
  2. Minerals: exogenous chemical elements essential for life which include calcium, iron, potassium, sodium, chloride, magnesium, zinc, copper, iodine and cobalt.
  3. Proteins and Amino Acids: Building blocks of the body. They include whey proteins, casein, soy, hemp, pea or rice protein. Mainly marketed as powders or ready to drink mixtures for convalescents, elderly individuals, athletes, pregnant women and children.
  4. Bodybuilding Supplements: Used for facilitating an increase in lean body mass by people involved in bodybuilding, weight-lifting, martial arts etc. Among the most widely used products are high protein drinks, branched-chain amino acids, creatine, hydroxymethyl butarate, whey proteins and Zinc monomethionine aspartate.
  5. Essential Fatty Acids: deemed necessary for people with a history of heart disease. Include Linolenic and alpha-linolenic acids which are obtained from fish oils, plant oils, seeds, nuts krill oil and marine algae extracts.
  6. Natural Products: have a long history of use in traditional herbal medicine. They can be extracts from plants, animals, algae, fungi, lichens etc. Examples include Ginkgo Biloba, curcumin, cranberry, St, John`s Wort, Ginseng, resveratrol etc.
  7. Probiotics: Specific bacteria or yeasts which are consumed orally to influence the microbiota of the large intestine with subsequent health benefits. This is expected to be the fastest-growing segment in the supplementary market worldwide.


Proceeding With Caution

As discussed above, there are a plethora of dietary supplements available which may be necessary from time to time. However, it is essential to ensure that they do not replace whole meals. It is thus important to talk to health care providers before embarking on their use and hence maintaining an ideal balance between nutrients from food and supplements.

It is also important to watch out for adverse reactions as many supplements contain strong biological agents which if used unsupervised can have harmful or life-threatening effects. Combining supplements with regular medication can be detrimental as can high doses of some supplements, particularly Vitamins A, D and iron



It is important not to get carried away on the tide of supplementation while seeking to optimize our diet. While supplementation is here to stay in our fast-paced world, it is important to remember that the beauty of life is in striking the right balance – dietary or otherwise.

Featured Image Source: Image by Bruno /Germany from Pixabay
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About the author

Describing herself as a 'surgeon who would rather wield a pen', Dr Sumedha Rege is an ENT specialist by profession but a writer by choice. After completing post-graduation in ENT in 2003, she has also worked as a post-graduate trainer in a popular institute in Mumbai. Obtaining an advanced diploma in creative writing with distinction in 2010, she has written on myriad topics for quite a few online publications. She currently has a private practice in Thane and is specially interested in nasal allergies.



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