Vitamins and supplements: Health or Hoax?
Here's a fact too big to swallow: Supplements are a $32 billion (annually) industry.
Yes, $32 billion. A year. Did you ever wonder if all the money you're spending on pills is necessary? Did you ever wonder if there could be something else you could do to get vitamins and minerals into your day? Could it be that you may be literally peeing your money down the toilet, or worse, doing more harm than good by consuming too many supplement pills? Well, let's look into it.
Let's start with why vitamin supplements are needed, when they are needed and who they are needed for.
1. Pregnant and breastfeeding women need more vitamins than food provides, in aim to reduce dangers associated with nutrient deficiencies for themselves and their babies. Supplements are crucial for this group of people.
2. The elderly have suppressed gut function, which means they are not able to absorb nutrients like they once could. They also have suppressed immune systems, which means they need extra nutrients for extra health benefits. This is why supplements in this group of people are needed.
3. Some people need supplementation for their medical conditions or genetic pre-disposition. Other people who may be on long-term restrictive diets or people with gut malabsorption problems benefit from supplements.
4. Most people don't eat enough fruits and vegetables, which is where the majority of essential nutrients come from. Some medical professionals may argue that this group of people need to supplement. However, this group of people are encouraged to consult with an Accredited Dietitian before beginning supplements.
Question: So, what about for those who have an already healthy lifestyle, exercise regularly, eat balanced whole foods and don’t smoke or drink alcohol regularly? Are supplements necessary in these cases?
Answer: Not only are they are sometimes unnecessary, they may also be unsafe.
It is mistakenly believed that since small amounts of vitamins are good for you, large amounts must be better. But the truth is, in the case of vitamin supplement pills, it is better to follow the rule of ‘less is more’. There are fat-soluble, and water-soluble vitamins:
Vitamins A, D, E and K are fat soluble, which means they can be stored in the body, so it is harder to excrete these vitamins when the body doesn't need them. Taking high doses of these vitamins (without medical supervision), especially vitamin A, over a long period of time can result in harmful levels in the body.
Too much vitamin A, consumed as beta-carotene supplements, has been shown to increase the risk of lung cancer among smokers. Similarly, too much vitamin E supplementation can seriously impact on health. A study that aimed to look at the supplement's role in preventing cancer or cardiovascular disease found that excessive amounts of vitamin E increased patients' risk of heart failure.
All other vitamins are water soluble, which means they can't be stored in the body for as long. So most of the time, when we're popping too many Vitamin C and B tablets, we're most likely peeing them out. So yes, that makes your pee worth $20. Sorry. However, studies have shown that although they are water soluble, they can still cause side effects in high doses. For example, vitamin B6 has been linked with nerve damage when taken in really large doses.
Now, don't let this scare you. For a healthy adult, if supplements are used, they should be taken at levels close to the recommended dietary intake (RDI). High-dose supplements should not be taken unless recommended under medical advice.
Vitamins and minerals are very important to have. They help keep the body functioning as it should, have immune-boosting properties, especially helpful during the cold and flu season. Vitamins A, C, and E are especially helpful for fighting colds and flus, as they have the power to assist antioxidants in scavenging free radicals (the bad guys) from our body cells, and help prevent or reduce the damage caused by oxidation. BUT, vitamins and antioxidants are much more effective for our health when consumed from natural, whole foods, rather than when they are isolated from a food and presented in tablet/supplement form. Also, it is very hard to overdose on vitamins if consumed through whole food (unless you eat 20kg of sweet potato in one sitting or something :|).
So let's not be lazy and depend on supplementing, when we can be a little extra prepared and easily meet our recommended intakes of nutrients from real food.
If we avoid taking supplements and focus on getting our vitamin supply from real food, not only do we reduce the risk of overdosing on one vitamin, but we also allow the multiple vitamins found in that one food to work together and be used in the body as they should. Think of netball: multiple team players are needed to get the ball from one end of the court to the other to score the goal. Vitamins are the same: multiple vitamins are needed to work together so they get absorbed and do what they need to do properly in the body.
Based on professional advice, I take vitamins and supplements to ensure my body is not missing out on any critical nutrients, but I use these as a 'top up' to my baseline healthy diet. Also, when I feel like I am coming down with a cold or flu, I blend the following ingredients together and have a few shots of it each day until I'm feeling better!
1 cup coconut water
1 ginger piece (5cmx5cm)
1 clove of garlic
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp cardamon
We have all this beautiful, natural food all around us, why spend unnecessary dollars on artificially made tablets? Embrace our fresh produce... Food is medicine.
Yours in health,
Joyce Haddad, Director of A Dietitian's Mission, is an Adelaide based Dietitian/Nutritionist and Master Personal Trainer with a passion for health and wellbeing. ADM aims to help the public make informed and realistic nutritional choices and ensure everyone has a healthy relationship with their body and with food.