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Sean Penny at the supplements section of an organic supermarket in Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National
Sean Penny at the supplements section of an organic supermarket in Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National

Dietary supplements: extra benefit or bogus?

In the quest for health and fitness, many people are asking whether to supplement or not.

Supplements are marketed as a way to improve health but they can cause dilemmas: Who are supplements right for? How do you know if you should take any, and what kind do you need?

"There is such an explosion of nutritional products on the market that the consumer can be left feeling totally baffled," says Brenda Saunders, a homeopath from Dubai Herbal Treatment Centre.

"There are so many products on the shelves manufactured by unregulated companies with questionable, if any, quality control procedures in place. A lot of people are wasting hard-earned money on supplements that they do not need ... and, in some cases, actually pose a potential health care risk."

The fact that some supplements really can help correct deficiencies makes things tricky. Stress at work or home, pregnancy and illness can lower certain nutrient levels.

"Even somebody following a raw food, organic diet needs to top up on minerals," Saunders says.

In other cases, minerals can help build muscle mass, repair muscle damage or increase energy.

The nutritionist Inger Houghton from Scandinavian Health & Performance recommends that her clients ingest as many of their nutrients as possible from food.

"I'd never start someone on supplements before trying them on proper food first," she says. "Nutrients come in the right composition from the foods they're in."

She recommends a diet packed full of vegetables, especially organic when it is affordable.

However, most people tend to stick to the same foods and therefore don't get a broad enough range of nutrients, says Andrew Picken, the head nutritionist and founder of Bespoke Wellness. He recommends supplements to treat symptoms including insomnia, fatigue and depression.

"So many people don't realise the root cause of the symptoms," he says. "Many conditions are caused by simple deficiencies in certain vitamins or minerals."

For active people, the need to supplement is even higher since the body depletes itself of vital nutrients during workouts. But people often take supplements without the proper information or guidance, says Picken. Apart from being expensive, he says, this can be toxic.

In the UAE, supplements can fill in where fruit and vegetables don't measure up. Foods often have to travel so far that they arrive depleted of nutrients, a situation made worse by the cooking process.

"Vitamin C in your orange, for example, is light- and heat-sensitive so by the time it travels here and sits in the supermarket, a lot of the vitamin C has degenerated," says Picken.

Sean Penny, of the Dubai-based homeopathic team The Wellness Brothers, says food cannot provide us with all the nutrients we need.

"In an ideal world, we should get all of these from our diet but, sadly, most people's diets don't provide a fraction of these. We're also subject to foods that have less than adequate nutrients, so supplementation is becoming more and more of a requirement," he says.

"For those who train regularly, there is always the consideration of sport-specific supplements." But these, too, can be confusing, especially protein shakes. Athletes must be sure to use the right kind. Houghton warns against anything containing soy protein, or "gainers", which are full of artificial sweetener and processed ingredients.

"If you can tolerate eggs and dairy, whey protein is usually the best," she says.

To fill the gap in a market packed with protein shakes loaded with artificial ingredients that can be hard to digest, Sean and his brother Ryan Penny developed their own natural vegan protein shake, Lean95.

Based on brown rice protein, which contains essential and non-essential amino acids, it contains easily digestible pea protein, vitamin and mineral-rich spirulina, maca, a natural energy booster and LuraLean, a natural appetite suppressant. "We avoided synthetic vitamins and minerals because we believe the research shows a clear difference between whole food and synthetic supplements, whole food being a lot more beneficial to the body," Penny says.

Although you should check with a health professional before taking any supplements, Brenda Saunders, a homeopath from Dubai Herbal Treatment Centre, generally recommends the following to boost general health.

Windhawk Mineral for cellular function.

Windhawk probiotic and digestive enzyme mix for a healthy gut and immune system.

Spirulina (RBC or Biogena) as a source of antioxidants and vitamin B for breaking down carbohydrates and overall cardiovascular health. Believed to reduce the risk of such diseases as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Biogena Omega 3 Duo to protect brain health and the nervous system. It is said to reduce inflammation, repair structural components of cell membranes and assist in reducing joint pain, reducing blood pressure and cardiovascular risks and stabilising one's mood.

Biogena vitamin D capsules for bone and teeth health as well as improved mood, hearing, sight and respiratory health and better health.

mswan@thenational.ae

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