When you next reach for your vitamin supplements, you might want to consider walking to your fruit bowl or to the vegetable drawer in your fridge instead. While millions of us are still spending fortunes on supplements hoping they will prevent infection and disease, studies show that spending money on vitamin supplements – those tiny capsules of supposed ‘goodness’ – is at best a waste of money and at worst detrimental to your health. So what’s the story?
Brown rice for healthy legs…
In order to understand how vitamins work, it makes sense to look at when they were first discovered. In the mid 1800s, white rice became increasingly common as manufacturers began to process rice in steam-powered mills, stripping the cereal grain of its outer layers. At the same time, a disease called beriberi, which caused people to lose feeling in their legs and have trouble walking became more widespread.
In the 1880s, the Dutch physician Christiaan Eijkman discovered that a flock of chickens had miraculously recovered from beriberi-like symptoms. Why? The chickens, which had previously only been fed leftover processed rice, were suddenly given the non-processed grain to eat and quickly recovered. Eijkman discovered that the outer layer of the rice contained something that was essential to the health of these living creatures. In 1912, Casimir Funk (a Polish-born biochemist) named the mysterious compound a “vital-amine”, shortened to vitamin.
OK, but where’s the evidence that vitamin supplements are bad for you?
There have been countless trials and numerous write-ups in medical journals assessing the benefits of supplements, all with similar findings. To give you two examples:
- In 2004 a review of 14 randomized trials for the Cochrane Collaboration (a database of systematic reviews and meta-analyses which summarize and interpret the results of medical research) found that supplemental vitamins A, C, E and a mineral, selenium, taken to prevent intestinal cancers, actually increased mortality.
- Similarly, in 2005 a review published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that in 19 trials of nearly 136,000 people supplemental vitamin E increased mortality.
What is the antioxidant paradox?
Ever since research has shown that supplements can be harmful to the body, scientists have tried to figure out why. One explanation is based on the antioxidant paradox: The body makes antioxidants (which can also be found in fruit and vegetables) to neutralize free radicals. However, when individuals take large quantities of antioxidants in the form of vitamin supplements, the balance between the production and destruction of free radicals might tip in the wrong direction. This causes an unnatural state, in which the immune system is less able to kill harmful invaders.
So what should we be taking?
The best thing you can do to get all the vitamins and minerals you need is to refocus your diet on one that contains foods which are naturally nutrient rich (fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, nuts, seeds etc.) as well as steering clear of processed foods, which are commonly stripped from nutrients and which may not contain much needed protective substances such as phytochemicals and polyunsaturated fats. In other words don’t fill the nutrient gap with a pill, fill it with food. According to Sara Stanner from the British Nutrition Foundation: “If we eat healthily, most of us are meeting our nutritional needs”.
If you are keen to take a supplement regardless of the evidence above, ensure that it is a ‘food state’ or ‘wholefood’ supplement and rather than a synthetic, or ‘isolated’ one. Food-state products, available e.g. from Cytoplan or Nature’s Own are beneficially combined with a food base in which that nutrient would naturally be found. This means that the nutrient complex contains all the other food factors necessary for absorption and utilisation in the body.
Are there exceptions?
Yes. While it makes sense to attempt to get all nutrients from a rich and balanced diet, there are some exceptions where it may be helpful to take a supplement:
- In pregnancy women are advised to take folic acid.
- People living in northern regions, vegans and individuals allergic to milk may suffer from vitamin D deficiency.
- Vegans may benefit from taking a Vitamin B12 supplement as this is only found in animal products.
Always see your GP for advice if you are unsure about taking a supplement.