Last year, Malaysia nabbed the accolade for being the most obese country in Asia. In addition, it has been estimated that of the total deaths, 73% are due to non-communicable diseases (NCDs). This is highly linked to unhealthy lifestyles practised by the community.

While the buzz for healthy and balance eating has been ongoing for as long as we know, online sales and TV commercials about dietary supplements have also been on the rise. More people are buying and consuming dietary supplements, after being convinced by the testimonies shared by other users, deeming the products to be good, yet not entirely backed by solid scientific evidence.

Although dietary supplements are beneficial for those needing the adequate amount of essential nutrients, they do not necessarily provide benefits to those who are healthy.

Dietary supplements not necessary for the healthy bunch

Mr Khairul Nizam Mat Nayan, head of the Dietetics and Food Service Department at Sultanah Bahiyah Hospital, commented that “healthy individuals do not necessarily need to take any dietary supplements for health care, especially while basing on their own diagnosis without seeking advice from an expert initially.”

While excessive intake of supplements does not necessarily harm the body in the short term, it is feared that the internal organs may be damaged in the long run. “If we take too much vitamin supplements, it will accumulate in the liver, which will eventually become toxins that affect the liver,” he told the Malay Mail.

Not only livers, other organs such as kidneys can also be damaged from excessive intake of supplements. Patients with kidney disease who still consume “too much non-relevant products could further burden the kidneys”.

“Normally, excessive consumption of water-soluble supplements such as vitamins C and B do not have any effect as they will be disposed of through the urine, but in the long run there will be side effects as it burdens the kidneys in processing these vitamins for disposal,” he added.

Question: When to take dietary supplements?

Consulting dietitian Mr Ng Kar Foo, has cited a few studies – stating that many who took the supplements are health conscious and tend to be able to eat healthy, which provides the positive results of those supplements. On the other hand, using vitamin A as an example, smokers who consume the supplement “actually have higher number of cases diagnosed with lung cancer”. From these cases, he pointed out the grey line, about at which point should supplements be recommended.

“The rule of thumb is that, we only suggest supplements after we realised they cannot achieve the requirement more than two-third of it,” highlighted Kar Foo. In the case of certain medical condition, when a “compromise with the body in terms of absorption, digestion and neutralisation of nutrients” is needed, that is when supplement would come in.

“As long as the supplements do not exceed the dosage and follow our daily nutritional requirements, it is not a problem,” asserted Khairul Nizam. “On the contrary, if taken above the prescribed dosage – it is likely to cause toxicity in the body.”

Sticking with the original – back to nature

Malaysian Food Pyramid – the simple guide for individuals to vary their intake of foods. Photo credit: Ministry of Health Malaysia/MyHEALTH Portal
Malaysian Food Pyramid – the simple guide for individuals to vary their intake of foods. Photo credit: Ministry of Health Malaysia/MyHEALTH Portal

After all is said and done, it is always best to go back to nature for the best nutrition. According to Khairul Nizam, it is adequate to practise a balanced diet based on natural foods such as vegetables, fruits and fish, for healthy individuals to maintain good health.

“If the body really needs additional supplements, it is advisable to choose supplements that come from organic and natural ingredients with no added chemicals, other than halal,” he said.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) has also outlined the Malaysian Dietary Guidelines that was last updated in 2013, where one of the messages emphasised on consuming a variety of foods according to the food pyramid.

“Dietary supplements should not take over the role and function of food diversity which is important for the human body because it does not supply the essential nutrients and components that are complete in natural foods,” commented Khairul Nizam.

“Food is always the best source of nutrients,” echoed Kar Foo. “For normal people who can eat healthily, they may not [need to] take the supplements. At the same time, if they take the supplements, they may not get the benefit that they want because they’re already eating enough.” MIMS

Read more:
How to obtain necessary nutrients from food, minus the pills – Part 1
Poring over coconut oil and selecting diet plans – a dietitian intervention
Singaporean health experts warn against mixing supplements with medicines