The pop culture of vitamins

Vitamins work as supplements, but are not a cure on their own.

In an ideal world, we’d get all the vitamins and minerals we need from our diets. But in reality, few achieve this. Even for those who consciously eat healthily, the nutritional content of many foods is depleted compared with how it was even a few decades ago. GP and nutritionist Dr Sarah Brewer answers five essential questions about supplements.

Does a multi-vitamin tick all the boxes?

A broad spectrum multi-vitamin and mineral will provide a cost-effective ‘back-up’ to cover most needs, but some people may benefit from additional supplements if they choose to exclude certain food groups from their diet. Examples include vegans, who will benefit from taking a vegan omega 3 supplement, a vitamin D supplement (normally found in dairy, oily fish and eggs) and a vegetarian source of vitamin B12.

Over-50s may benefit from eating more foods fortified with Vitamin B12 or taking a multi-vitamin that contains B12. People who don’t consume enough calories and enough fruit and vegetables could benefit from a multi-vitamin and mineral, and people with a medical condition that affects how their body absorbs nutrients, may need additional supplements. Plus, women who experience heavy periods may need an iron supplement.

Do doctors advocate people taking supplements?

Most health professionals understand the benefit of using supplements sensibly and when necessary. For example, folic acid during pregnancy, vitamins A, C and D for children aged under five, iron to treat iron-deficiency anaemia and calcium for those at risk of osteoporosis.

Is it possible to over-dose on supplements?

It’s a common myth that ‘taking more will have greater effect’. The body’s only able to take what it needs — the remainder will either get passed out in urine or stored in fat within the body.

What if you’re pregnant?

Pregnant women are advised to take a 400mcg folic acid supplement during the first three months of their pregnancy, as well as 10mcg of vitamin D throughout the entire pregnancy and while breast-feeding. Any other supplement should only be taken on the advice of your GP, midwife or pharmacist.

Can supplements cure diseases?

Supplements can only cure a deficiency disease – but cannot ’cure’ other health problems such as high blood pressure or heart disease, but they can complement the conventional medical treatment if used alongside diet and lifestyle changes, but medication may still be needed.


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