Experts have been at each others’ throats for years on the subject of whether vitamin supplements are worth taking or not, or even if they do more harm than good.
Today’s expert is tomorrow’s quack physician. We no longer go to the barbers to get bled or to have our humors checked over and it’s probably been a long time since anyone was prescribed treatment by leeches. I can’t help thinking that History will chuckle in time about our confused squabbles over the relative merits of vitamin supplements.
In our rush-around lives it might seem that taking vitamin supplements could give us the benefits of a good dietary intake without having to consume what would traditionally be seen as a ‘good diet’; one with a healthy balance of fresh fruit and vegetables as well as meat and fish prepared in a healthy manner. The attraction of such a seemingly quick fix is obvious. Who has the time to think about such things as they do the supermarket scramble and honestly, who has time to poach or steam when a microwave can ‘ding’ it done in seconds?
A waste of time?
Anyway, the underlying question revolves around stark issues. Are we wasting our money? Are we doing ourselves harm or are we protecting ourselves from the onset of illnesses and diseases? The answer is going to be different for every single one of us.
Lots of people take a daily multi-vitamin pill aiming to shore up their less than ideal diet. Multi-vitamins tend to incorporate around 10 different vitamins and minerals (except stuff like Calcium that can’t be added in sufficient quantity in a multi-vitamin pill context to make it worthwhile). Claims have been made that they protect against cancer or heart disease and so on, and they do, but only to a point with most experts actually in agreement that there really is no substitute for a healthy balanced diet. Sadly, as many of us have found, it’s actually quite difficult (not impossible) to consume a diet that gives us sufficient amounts of all of the different vitamins and nutrients we need. Again, it needs to be stressed that because we are all different our requirements are different and it may be better to concentrate supplements to address specific gaps.
I can say nothing more certain than: some vitamins are going to be good for some people, whilst others may make no difference at all. There are also vitamins that might do certain people harm. If you managed to follow that, you’ll understand that the whole area is a grey one.
In other words, depending on your specific age, sex and any conditions or syndromes you live with, there might be vitamins that taken in large enough quantities, might do you harm. Saying that, it’s really important to understand that all-in-all vitamins are not harmful, or good old Mother Nature wouldn’t keep slipping them into our food.
Folic acid, for example is specifically added to grain foods in order to fortify them, but the downside is that consuming too much Folic Acid is thought to be a contributing factor of prostate and colorectal cancers. So with that in mind, if you already eat cereals for energy and so on, you shouldn’t be taking further supplements of Folic Acid. Since not everyone enjoys grain foods though, it isn’t correct to say that Folic Acid is bad for everyone.
Similarly, too much Vitamin C or Zinc can cause nausea, diarrhoea or stomach cramps whilst Selenium can contribute to hair loss, fatigue and gastrointestinal upset. There are plenty more general observations but it’s really a case of seeing for ourselves what works for us and adjusting our intake according to our needs. (If you happen, to have a specific clinical condition or are taking medication, you need to discuss your consumption with a doctor or pharmacist.)
Generally speaking it’s quite difficult to overdose significantly on vitamins. For one thing, people don’t tend to take more of them than they need to simply because the doses are usually set at what is considered an optimum level or put another way, taking 100 hundred Vitamin A pills (or the same stuff found in carrots) will not make you see as well as a rabbit. The correct dose of one or two daily tablets is sufficient and there comes a point soon after that when the body reaches an absorption threshold and you simply pass the vitamins without gaining benefit. Another reason is that there is a safety margin built in by manufacturers to prevent acute harm.
Being aware of your body is a good starting point. If you are experiencing concentration problems or are unable to sleep or are irritable there might be an imbalance and you should seek professional advice. A reputable chemist or health food store may well have pharmacists or well-trained assistants on-hand, or you could visit your GP for a deeper appraisal of your needs.
The days of quack claims have been consigned to history since the law in the UK does not permit any food to make any claim to specifically prevent or cure any disease or medical condition. Although food supplements and vitamins are not required to be licensed in the UK, good enforcement of stringent food laws means that it is extremely unlikely to see any false (illegal) claims printed on labels.
There is no credible way to say that vitamin supplements are going to be good or bad for any individual without proper evaluation of their specific needs. It’s also worth pointing out that instead of adding to your diet, you might want to consider lowering amounts of certain things in your diet, namely: salt, sugar and fat.
Helpfully, we are able to make a few assumptions based on our age and gender. Here are a few very general tips:
Selenium and Vitamin E is thought to prevent prostate problems.
Women planning to have children should look at increasing their intake of Folic Acid. (There are specific pre-natal supplements that tend to contain Folic Acid and Vitamin A.)
Sometimes women need extra Iron because of loss of the mineral during menstruation.
Women that are post-menopause might need a bit more Vitamin D than they did before.
Lots of children’s food tends to be fortified and subtle differences in diet make all the difference too. Your child, for example, probably drinks more milk than you do. Vitamin D is known to be good for bone growth but is difficult to add into an ordinary diet. (NB: Don’t let children take pills on their own; they may find other more dangerous pills and decide to take those too.)
As we age, our ability to absorb vitamins and nutrients diminishes. Taking a daily multi-vitamin pill might be the answer. Multi-vitamins specifically designed for older people tend to contain B12 as well as Vitamin K which can help with hip problems. However, Vitamin K can also interfere with blood-thinning medication so seek good advice before you start a course. Too much Iron isn’t good for older people and so is not included in multi-vitamin courses for older people.
Meat contains Iron, Magnesium, Selenium, Calcium, Vitamin D, Zinc and B12. Specific vegetarian multi-vitamins are available.