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The sensible guide to supplements

Dec 12, 2019 by William Lewis.

Are gummy vitamins and mineral shots the answer to staying healthy? Elle Turner investigates.

According to my best mate, a big glass of water and a couple of multivitamins are all you need to see off a stonking hangover. “I don’t know why it works,” she says, “all I know is that it works.” It’s true that supplements are a slippery subject. With Mintel estimating their market value at £420m in the UK, it’s clear they’re big business. Fifty-eight per cent of us are taking them, but it seems most of us don’t exactly know what they do, or whether we need them. Just ask Google – type “Do I need supplements” into the search engine and it generates 195 million hits.

So, what actually are vitamins? According to the NHS,"nutrients and minerals are fundamental supplements, for example, iron, calcium and nutrient C, that your body needs in modest quantities to work appropriately”. “In theory, you should be able to get all of the nutrition your body needs from eating a varied, well-balanced diet,” says registered dietician Helen Bond. Certainly, supplements shouldn’t be used in place of healthy eating. But, as Bond explains, “sometimes it is hard to get enough of certain nutrients from diet alone.” For instance, if you’re pregnant and need more nutrients, such as folic acid; if you’re over 65 and can’t convert food to nutrients as effectively as before; or if you’re a baby and need more nutrients, such as vitamins A, C and D to aid development, you might need an additional top-up with supplements, according to the NHS and the British Dietetic Association (BDA) .

There are other exceptions: vegetarians, vegans, people with anaemia and women with very heavy periods may need extra iron, while women who have been through the menopause may need extra calcium, says Bond. But, if that’s not you, chances are that supplements won’t be giving you anything you can’t get from your food.

It seems a lot of us are topping up regardless. According to the September 2017 Vitamins and Supplement Mintel report, “multivitamins continue to be the most popular type of vitamin supplement taken”, due to their “catch-all approach”, and omega-3 rich supplements like cod liver oil are also very popular. While this is fine when taken at the correct dosage (look at the label for a guide), taking too much can be surprisingly harmful. For instance, fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K (which are absorbed by the body and stored in the liver and in fat cells, until they need to be used), can build up and make us unwell.  says Bond. “Doubling up” tends to be a common cause. For example, if you take a multivitamin tablet that includes vitamin D and then take an additional vitamin D supplement, you’re likely to be exceeding the amount you need. As for water-soluble vitamins (vitamins B and C), they can’t be stored by our body and surplus is simply ejected in our wee. It means that you’re quite literally flushing money down the loo.

Honestly? More often than not, you’ll find that a vitamin C tablet is more expensive and less effective then tucking into a food rich in vitamin C, like an orange. Instead of stockpiling pills, most of us would be better off focusing on getting the most we can from our diet. “Choose most of your food from the five main food groups. [These are] fruits and vegetables; starchy wholegrain carbs; dairy products and alternatives; beans, pulses, fish, eggs and meat and other protein sources; and oils and spreads,” says Bond. At least that means we can put the money we might have used for supplements to better use – on that new dress in Zara, say, or even towards a fancy new moisturiser. Or, on a bloody great dinner. One that’s rich in vitamins, obviously.

THE BEST VITAMINS FOR THOSE WHO NEED THEM:

*Make sure you get all vitamins from a reputable source like a pharmacy, rather than from independent sites on the internet

HEALTHY START VITAMINS FOR CHILDREN AGED SIX MONTHS TO FIVE YEARS OLD

Vitamin A helps to develop vision and organ function, vitamin C helps to protect cells and maintain healthy skin, blood vessels, bones and cartilage and vitamin D helps keeps teeth, bones and muscles healthy.

NHS Healthy Start Children's Vitamin Drops, £3.99

FOLIC ACID FOR WOMEN TRYING TO CONCEIVE AND PREGNANT WOMEN

This helps to prevent neural-tube defects such as spina bifida.

Holland & Barrett Folic Acid Tablets, £8.49

IRON FOR HEAVY PERIODS, THOSE WITH ANAEMIA AND PROTEIN DEFICIENCIES

This helps to make red blood cells and carry oxygen around the body.

Spatone Natural Iron Sachets, £6,99

VITAMIN D FOR THOSE OVER 65 AND THOSE NOT GETTING ENOUGH

This helps to keep bones, muscles and teeth healthy.

Boots Vitamin D Tablets, £2.29

CALCIUM FOR WOMEN WHO HAVE BEEN THROUGH THE MENOPAUSE

This helps to keep bones and teeth strong and healthy and helps prevent osteoporosis. (Don’t take this one with an additional vitamin D supplement.)

Vitabiotics Menopace Calcium Tablets, £13.49