Miracle Pills or Money Pits: Should You Take Vitamin Supplements?

There are many reasons why people buy vitamin tablets. They seem to provide the perfect solution: miracle pills, which can supplement your diet completely. It sounds too good to be true. Well, perhaps it is. 

It can be tempting to take vitamins because of a recommendation or convincing marketing. Maybe you always feel tired and someone has suggested you try taking multivitamins, or perhaps you are prone to colds and after some Googling decide to take Vitamin C.

Whatever your motives, it is important to recognise what vitamins are and what they do in the body. They are not sweets, they are complex chemical structures which have different effects on our bodies. They do not supply the diet with energy, but rather act as chemical partners for the enzymes involved in the body’s metabolism, cell production, tissue repair, and other vital processes. The body is a complicated machine and even in tiny amounts the vitamins and minerals in your food perform amazing, complex actions which help the body run smoothly. 

Minerals interact with each other in different ways and affect the absorption of other minerals. For example, calcium affects iron absorption; too much iron means that zinc will not be absorbed; too much vitamin C affects levels of copper.

In order to keep the country as healthy as possible (and because now it’s trendy!) some of our food is fortified. This means that vitamins and minerals are added to foods that don’t contain them naturally. In the UK it is mandatory for white flour to be fortified with calcium, iron and some B vitamins. Other foods are often voluntarily fortified such as breakfast cereals, cereal bars, drinks, and enriched pasta. Be aware of what is in the foods that you are eating. If you eat lots of fortified foods, it is likely that you don’t need to take supplements as well. 

You can get vitamins and minerals naturally from non-fortified foods. Rather than spending money on vitamins, why not try to incorporate a range of more nutritious foods into your diet? 

Another problem with consuming too many vitamins and minerals is the effect that they can have on medication. There are many foods that need to be avoided with certain drugs, so bear this in mind when popping the pills.

You should also be aware that some vitamins are known to have a negative impact on the body: 

  • Vitamin A can increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers. 
  • Excess zinc intake reduces immune function. 
  • Long-term excessive intake of manganese is linked to muscle and nerve disorders in older people. 
  • Niacin in excess has been linked to cell damage.  

On top of these, there are a whole host of possible side effects of taking too many vitamins and minerals ranging from nausea, stomach cramps to hair loss and nerve damage. Although these are extreme side effects, it is important to take this into account.

So should you take vitamin supplements or not?

Overall the consensus is that apart from select population groups, vitamins in tablet form are not needed and in fact could be harmful. Here are some groups who need or could benefit from taking a supplement:

  • Women who are trying for a baby or up to 12 weeks pregnant should be taking folic acid to prevent spina bifida. They should also be taking vitamin D. 
  • When breastfeeding, women should take vitamin D supplements. 
  • Infants from the age of six months to four years should ideally be taking vitamins A, D, and C, especially if your child is a fussy eater.  
  • As we age our body changes. The stomach loses its acid and requires more B12. Our skin becomes thinner and more vitamin D is required as well as calcium.  
  • There are an array of vitamins and minerals that vegans need to be replaced in their diet. One of the important ones is B12. 
  • Those who cover their skin due to cultural reasons or because they would rather stay indoors need to take vitamin D.

Taking a multivitamin might not be a bad idea if you are one to consume lots of ready meals, jars and takeaways as these don’t provide us with enough nutrients, but it is important to take note of any fortified foods that you are eating. 

Nevertheless, it would be more beneficial to think about the reasons why you think that you need to take a supplement. It is likely that there is a simpler – and cheaper – solution: drink more water, eat more fruit and vegetables, get outside and do some exercise. Whatever your decision, make sure you research well and take care that you’re not oversupplying yourself with a particular vitamin. 


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