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DHoS spoke to three nutrition experts, who with science as the guiding light, busted common myths around some popular nutritional supplements, some of which are believed to have their origin in India.
Last Updated : 06 April 2024, 22:41 IST
Last Updated : 06 April 2024, 22:41 IST

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If there's ever a topic that constantly trends on Instagram, it is nutrition. More so, supplements. Powders, drinks, strips, pills, shakes — nutrients are being sold and consumed in many avatars but no one really seems to know (or care) whether we need supplements at all in the first place, or worse, whether they can end up causing us more harm than good. Despite the recent Supreme Court rap to an Ayurvedic company for its misleading ads about so-called herbal remedies, the universal penchant for the quick fix has now percolated down to grandmother's nuskas, now bottled and marketed as new-age elixirs for every ailment — from arthritis to insomnia and weight loss.

DHoS spoke to three nutrition experts, who with science as the guiding light, busted common myths around some popular nutritional supplements, some of which are believed to have their origin in India. 

1. Turmeric-based supplements

Q: Is turmeric beneficial at all? Does it improve liver function, reduce the risk of cancer and arthritis and fight infections as many proclaim?

Edwina Raj, Head of Services, Clinical Nutrition & Dietetics, Aster CMI Hospital, Bengaluru: 

Curcumin supplement, which is an extract from turmeric, undergoes processing to enhance absorption and utilisation by our body. However, there is limited data at present about its efficacy. Best to consume turmeric naturally because supplements consumed in large doses can increase susceptibility to kidney stones and liver injury. Even the purity of natural turmeric is questionable due to malpractices such as added colouring and additives. 

Sheela Joseph, Consultant Nutritionist, Sparsh Hospitals, Bengaluru: 

Turmeric is praised in traditional medicine, but scientific evidence supporting its effectiveness for arthritis and other conditions remains inconclusive. Although some studies suggest its active ingredient, curcumin, may possess anti-inflammatory properties, relying solely on turmeric supplements can be risky. Its good properties become available only when someone takes it along with pepper. The enzyme in pepper, which is piperine, helps in the absorption of turmeric. So, having a decoction of a bit of good turmeric powder, maybe a half teaspoon with an equal amount of pepper powder is nice. It’s just a health drink, not necessarily a cure-all.

N R Bharathi, HoD, Nutrition & Dietetics, Manipal Hospital, Sarjapur Road, Bengaluru:

Turmeric is known to have anti-inflammatory properties but it is not a magic bullet. It can help clean your gut and detoxify but if you are already in pain from, say, arthritis or are under medication for a liver problem, turmeric water cannot help you much — it can at best help you relax and thus recover faster. Most diseases today are lifestyle dependent — they can be kept at bay with healthy eating and moderate exercise. Turmeric water on an empty stomach can provide additional benefits, if any. Make sure to use fresh turmeric though and beware of additives and preservatives. 

2. Ashwagandha supplements

Q. Will taking an ashwagandha supplement reduce stress, bolster the immune system and treat insomnia?

Edwina Raj: Known as ‘Indian Ginseng’, data about its long-term use is scarce and there are reported adverse effects on the liver, thyroid and those suffering from hormone-sensitive prostate cancer as it increases the levels of testosterone. It interacts with medications and is considered unsafe for pregnant and lactating women. Some studies claim it reduces fatigue but it should be only administered under medical supervision, if needed.

Sheela Joseph: Ashwagandha is popular in traditional medicine for its benefits, but scientific evidence supporting its effectiveness in reducing stress, boosting immunity and tackling insomnia is limited. Some studies suggest it may help with stress and anxiety due to its adaptogenic properties, but the results vary. 

N R Bharathi: Ashwagandha is believed to have anxiety-reducing properties, according to traditional medicine practitioners. However, if you watch a horror movie till midnight and then pop an Ashwagandha pill, it won't help you! If you are eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, taking ashwagandha mixed in milk, etc., will help relax you and may even help you sleep better. 

3. Jaggery and honey

Q. Are jaggery and honey better than white sugar?

Edwina Raj: Jaggery can be used as an alternative to sugar since it has many other essential nutrients but remember it has around the same number of calories and behaves in pretty much the same way: both spike your sugar levels. Honey is known for its anti-oxidant properties but is beneficial only if consumed in moderation for it too is a source of fructose and a high intake will again hurt your blood sugar levels. 

Sheela Joseph: If a person is diabetic, they should not only avoid white sugar but jaggery and honey as well. People who are not diabetic and are weight conscious and want to have a low carbohydrate diet can use jaggery. Honey has anti-microbial properties but beware of adulterated honey and use it in moderation. 

N R Bharathi: Every day I reprimand at least 5 or 6 of my patients who are diabetic but insist on using jaggery. Yes, jaggery and honey both have some nutritional benefits but at the end of the day, when you calculate 1 gm of sugar, jaggery or honey, calorie-wise, they are all the same. Another 'funny' product is sugar-free. I would say, instead of using sugar-free, it is better to replace it with a little jaggery! Mind you, I am not encouraging the use of jaggery but flagging the negative effects of the so-called sugar-free products. 

4. Whey protein

Q. Is whey protein good for you? Are there any side effects one should be aware of?

Edwina Raj: Whey protein is considered safe if it is appropriately prescribed. It is necessary only for those who are unable to source their daily intake of protein naturally through their diet since adequate protein intake is necessary to preserve muscle mass, healthy hair and immunity. However, large doses of whey protein can increase the load on your kidneys, upset your stomach, impair your gut health and disrupt your hormones. Hence, whey protein needs to be consumed only if prescribed by a qualified dietitian.

Sheela Joseph: Protein supplements are frequently used in hospitals to aid in patient recovery by providing essential nutrients such as proteins, vitamins, and minerals. However, it's important to note that these supplements are typically recommended for short-term use to support recovery and are not intended for long-term reliance. Commercially available whey protein may have anabolic steroids which help to pump up muscles. Therefore, while whey protein supplements have a valuable role in certain medical contexts, they may not be necessary or advisable for otherwise healthy individuals.

N R Bharathi: There is no harm in consuming natural whey protein. But when it comes to protein shakes, people end up gulping them down in large doses without proper medical advice even when they are not required to consume additional protein. Often, the protein does not get absorbed and this causes a lot of side-effects such as an increase in uric acid levels, kidney stones, etc. 

5. Multi-vitamin pills and biotin gummies

Q: Are multivitamin supplements necessary for healthy people following a regular diet? Do biotin hair gummies help in the growth of hair?

Edwina Raj: Unnecessarily self-administering these supplements for long durations can be unsafe. Biotin has no doubt gained popularity commercially for its claimed benefits to improve hair and nail growth but there is limited research data to support the efficacy in healthy individuals. Since biotin is a water-soluble vitamin, there is no harm in taking it in moderation but in large doses for beyond six months, there have been reports of increased frequency of urination and sleep disturbances. You can source biotin naturally through nuts, dals, egg yolk, mushrooms, bananas, and avocados.

Sheela Joseph: Multivitamin supplements serve a purpose in individuals recovering from illnesses, infections, or those with reduced appetites, helping bridge nutritional gaps. Even in healthy individuals, a multivitamin may benefit those on strict diets or experiencing occasional nutrient deficiencies, particularly in Vitamin B when cutting carbohydrates. However, for those maintaining a balanced diet, continuous multivitamin use may not be necessary. It's advisable to take them intermittently and with professional guidance. There's an abundance of hype surrounding biotin, yet many individuals who've taken it haven't experienced significant hair growth. It appears more like a gimmick than a genuine solution. A balanced diet remains key. 

N R Bharathi: Blindly taking multi-vitamin supplements and Vitamin D tablets is not advised at all. It can have adverse effects if taken for longer durations without medical advice. As for biotin gummies, hair growth depends on overall nutrition — a good intake of protein, iron and zinc will help keep hair healthy and prevent hair fall. Consult a good dietitian instead of just popping pills and candies. 

6. Green tea and apple cider vinegar

Q. Do they help in weight loss?

Edwina Raj: Nothing will reduce your weight in isolation. All the weight loss you see would be loss of water or muscle. Green tea is rich in phytonutrients but it cannot work alone to reduce your weight unless it is combined with mindful eating and exercise.  Similarly, apple cider vinegar does contain gut-friendly properties but there’s not enough evidence to claim all the listed benefits. 

Sheela Joseph: Various forms of green tea, including blends with tulsi or ashwagandha, offer refreshing alternatives to the frequent consumption of coffee or tea overloaded with sugar, milk, and fat. Switching to green tea helps mitigate excessive sugar intake and enhances metabolic rates, aiding digestion. Apple cider vinegar serves as a healthier alternative to white or balsamic vinegar. Incorporating apple cider vinegar into salads adds flavour and potential health benefits. However, claims of weight loss associated with apple cider vinegar lack scientific evidence. 

N R Bharathi: Green tea and apple cider vinegar contain good vitamins and minerals and if taken on an empty stomach, can improve metabolic rate. If you work out in the next half an hour or so, it can help burn fat quicker but it cannot by itself cause weight loss. Some people drink only apple cider vinegar to 'detox' and don't consume any food — this can cause hormonal imbalances. Permanent weight loss has no shortcuts. Nothing is as effective as a balanced diet, moderate exercise and good sleeping habits.

Published 06 April 2024, 22:41 IST

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