Supplement Basics - Part I

There’s been a long debate about the efficacy of supplements among different schools of thought.  Some believe that supplements are a waste of money; and some take so many, that it fills up their cabinets.  Recently, an article came out about the majority of the supplements from large retailers had nothing in the capsules.  This posed a lot of negativity with the public.  However, I don’t believe this to be true.  

In my experience, there’s always been 3 levels of quality for supplements and this is where the branding comes in:

  1. Pharmaceutical Level - this category of supplements are usually created by large pharmaceutical companies that want to compliment their existing drugs, with more natural, on demand options.  However, the supplements at this level are generally filled with fillers, colourings, preservatives to make the product last longer in storage and on the shelf.  These so called ‘inert’ substances should pose no dietary risk for consumers, according to their knowledge.  Supplements at this category are generally lower doses with recommended doses standardised by RDA requirements.
  2. Health Food Level - this category of supplements are usually created by natural food advocates and nutritionists.  The quality of the products are better than the pharmaceutical grade products and at higher doses per capsule or tablet.  This range caters to people that might have specific dietary needs, food restrictions, or even food allergies.  At this level, products generally range from having lower amounts of fillers and/or preservatives to hypoallergenic formulas that don’t have dairy, soy, gluten, yeast, nuts, wheat, egg, fish, shellfish, and/or tree nuts ingredients in the manufacturing process.
  3. Professional Level - this category of supplements cater to practitioners like medical doctors that use nutrition, naturopathic doctors, and nutritionists.  The products in this range are fully hypoallergenic with the list of allergens exceeding beyond the list I mentioned above.  Products at this level have research to back up their formulas, whether it is their own in-house research facility, or research collected via their R&D team.  The label is true to the dose that is in the capsule or tablet.  Primarily, the doses are clinically relevant in treating conditions through natural medicine or functional medicine. The dose on the label is important so the standardisation of the products need to be accurate for “prescribing”.

Supplementation habits in Hong Kong are relatively new.  Only in the last decade or so, people have started to look for supplements to improve on their health for prevention or finding a natural means to manage a condition in particular.  Most of this knowledge came from North America and Australia through globalisation.  Majority of expats already do supplements, if not at least, has heard someone taking supplements for health.  Locals on the other hand, are beginning this journey.

Generally speaking, what I’ve found and seen clinically, is that supplements only have benefits if you follow these steps:

  1. In order for the supplement to have any noticeable benefits, you have to create a habit of actually taking them regularly or as prescribed.
  2. Supplements have to be treated as part of your diet (after all, supplements are used to ‘supplement’ something you’re missing in your regular diet)
  3. Most supplements should be taken with or after food, with the exception of digestive enzymes, and a few others.  
  4. Dosage is very important

So, what types of supplements should we take in general for maintenance or overall health and well-being?  I get this question a lot from customers and patients. Everyone is an individual, every person has different nutritional needs, so how do you know?

Tune into Part II for the specific supplements one might use to improve on their health & well-being.