Fitness & Health, Sport & Exercise Science

Are vitamin supplements a waste of money?

VitaminsWell, unless you have particular dietary needs, vitamin supplements probably are a waste of money and may even be harmful, a nutritionist told a meeting at the recentBritish Science Festival

Professor Brian Ratcliffe of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen told delegates that most people should simply consume a varied diet containing a number of different vitamins and minerals.

He referred to what he called the large number of “worried well” in the UK who take larger than recommended doses of supplements in the mistaken belief that if something is good for you then more must be better and are literally pouring money down the drain.

As an example he quoted the use of vitamin C. Despite very little clinical evidence supporting beneficial effects of consuming ultra-high doses of vitamin C, these supplements have become popular for “warding off colds” and other infections.

Supplements that contain 1.5g of vitamin C (the equivalent of more than 20 oranges) per dose are widely available. But around 75% of the vitamin ends up down the toilet, said Professor Ratcliffe. Our kidneys simply remove it from the bloodstream.

For those under 65 and worried about their nutrition he suggests a visit to a dietician would be more beneficial than buying expensive multi-vitamin complexes.

Vitamin supplements do have a role to play for certain groups, he said. For example folic acid is recommended during pregnancy and over-65s are at risk from vitamin D deficiencies. On the other hand, some groups are at risk from higher dosages of particular vitamins. Recent research suggests vitamin A supplements can be harmful to smokers.

Presenting his work in collaboration with the Nutrition Society, Professor Ratcliffe argued that research has clearly established at what level we become deficient in a particular vitamin and the level (if any) at which a vitamin becomes toxic.

It has failed to establish with confidence though, just how much of a certain vitamin we should take to gain “optimum” health benefits.
He said the health benefits of a particular vitamin tend to increase as intake rises above an established minimum until an optimum is reached, past which there is no extra benefit and in some cases there is harm.

The optimum level varies according to sex, age and many other factors, making it impossible to give an ideal dose that would be suitable for everyone.

But the many people who wouldn’t dream of starting the day without taking a carefully considered combination of vitamins, minerals and biochemical supplements will take some convincing.

Is this just another example of the media being guilty of sensational but inaccurate reporting, a scientist making inflated claims based on limited research or is it simply a reiteration of the established facts that taking high doses of vitamins does not bring proportionately higher health benefits and can in extreme cases be harmful?

Whatever the case, many users would argue that even with a healthy, balanced diet it is difficult to get the recommended intake of all vitamins and minerals without the use of supplements.

As my grey haired old granny used to say “Exercise moderation in all things” Oh if only I’d listened!

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  1. Professor Radcliffe should spend more time looking through Pubmed before he starts making these sort of claims. A simple search on the database for “vitamin C” returns around 38,000 results. The majority support the use of higher-dose vitamin C.

    The use of the term ‘worried well’ is also of concern. This implies that anyone who consumes micronutrients above the RDAs is in this category. Since when were the RDAs based on science, though? The way the RDA for biotin was downgraded from 1000mcg to 300mcg to please the food lobbyists tells us all we need to know. I like to think that anyone who takes the time to weigh up both experimental and epidemiological data and use their common sense to decide what level of nutrients best meets their personal requirements is an ‘intelligent consumer’. not ‘worried well’.

    Who paid for Professor Radcliffe’s research, anyway?

  2. jeanette mason says

    no spam pls

    here, here most consumers who purchase vitamins are sophisticated enough and intelligent enough to let their bodily symptoms dictate pursuit of nutritional help and health food stores in america are filled with educated customers who share information the way tribal elders shared info or women across clothes lines

    who did pay for his research a medical association that is losing business to the ‘worried well?’ hah!

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