San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Can nutritional supplements create bad habits?

It is generally accepted that people who take nutritional supplements – vitamins, minerals, fish oils, etc. – are sensible souls who tend to make an effort to look after their health. However, a recent study suggests otherwise. A couple of small experiments carried out by researchers at Southern Taiwan University found that those who took supplements were more likely to make unhealthy diet and exercise choices than those who didn’t. The higher the level of supplementation, the more marked the unhealthy behaviors.

Julie Godfrey

Julie Godfrey

So, is taking a multivitamin suddenly a license to eat poorly and not bother to exercise? Absolutely not. The benefit of the supplement is easily outweighed by the extra strain on the body from poor lifestyle choices. You would then need more nutritional supplements to compensate, and … well, it could get rather expensive without actually keeping you in optimal health. Making the right lifestyle choices in the first place is a lot better for your body and wallet.

Good health habits often slip over time. Test yourself right now: Think about and write down your typical diet and levels of exercise over two to three days. Then, during the next week, write down exactly what you actually ate and the exercise you did. To the surprise of most people, these two lists can be quite different. The justification of many is that the extra helping, cookie, piece of cake or bag of chips was an “exception,” as was the omission to swim, go to the gym or walk the dog. However, exceptions can quickly become a daily habit. Likewise, with supplements, it is easy to fall into the trap of the “Well, I didn’t manage my five fruit and veggie servings, but I took my multivitamin, so I’m covered” mentality. This can be particularly true when it comes to children, especially fussy eaters whose parents dread the daily battle of getting them to eat wholesome foods.

Some people do need supplements. Pregnant and lactating women have huge nutritional needs and can benefit from a little extra help. The elderly, who tend to have small and often restricted diets, may also benefit, as could children, with their high-nutrient demands. Not to forget those who for some reason are avoiding complete food groups in their diets. Even so, supplementation is not meal replacement. These people should still eat the best diet they can and exercise within the limits of their physical ability, then top up with the appropriate supplements.

For the rest of us, a good diet should be enough. The only flaw in my argument is that, in reality, a poor diet with supplements is debatably better than a poor diet without them. If, however, you are looking for optimal health, a nutrient-rich diet of unprocessed grains, plenty of fruits and vegetables, proteins naturally low in saturated fats, plus some cold pressed oils, together with carefully selected supplements, if really necessary, is the most responsible, effective and economical combination of all.

Julie Godfrey, B.Sc. (Hons), is a nutritional therapy practitioner and full member of the British Association of Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT). For more information, see or email

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