Are vitamins a waste of money?

By Dr Raj Khillan
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Besides helping you produce the most expensive urine, most health experts see no real value in taking supplements

At least eight out of every ten Australians take some form of vitamin supplements, which means that in effect, Australians are wasting millions of dollars in making the most expensive urine, as most vitamins are excreted in urine, if the person is not vitamin deficient.

Our bodies need vitamins and minerals to function properly. WHO refers to vitamins as micronutrients, because the actual amounts needed are minute—but incredibly important nonetheless. Vitamins allow our bodies to produce enzymes and hormones that are essential for growth and development.

Generally, there are two types of vitamins—water soluble and fat soluble. Fat-soluble vitamins (Vitamin A, E, D, K) are absorbed in the small intestine and stored in the liver or body fat for long periods of time. Water-soluble vitamins (Vitamin C and B complex) dissolve more quickly in the body, which means your body won’t store them for later, so you need to ingest on regular basis via healthy diet.

According to the 2013 Gallup Poll, half of American adults take a vitamin or mineral supplement on a regular basis. That means there’s a lot of money to be made from supplements. In fact, according to the National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health, Americans spent $12.8 billion out of pocket for natural product supplements in 2012. Consumers seem to truly believe taking a pill is the best way to manage their health.

Experts and medical professionals have always questioned the efficacy and usefulness of vitamins in a healthy body. Buying multivitamins benefit the companies that manufacture them by boosting profits, but for the average Australian multivitamins provide “no benefit”. “What you need is a good diet, or you’re pissing the money down the toilet for no benefit,” experts believe.

The main argument for using vitamin supplements is that we don’t get enough nutrients from food what is called recommended daily allowances (RDAs). RDAs are the minimum needed number of vitamins to prevent a physiological deficiency, rather than to maintain optimal health.

Nutritionists argue that optimal quantities, which would reduce the risks of key diseases such as cancer, are probably much higher—from twice to ten times the RDA. However according to their arguments obtaining that much quantity through food alone is almost impossible. Because they believe now that most food we eat is nutritionally deficient through intensive farming and processing.

On the other hand, medical researchers believe that supplement vitamins do not protect us from any illness.

Researchers from Oxford University conducted a heart protection study, where they tracked 20,000 people, half of whom were prescribed daily doses of vitamin C and E and beta carotene for five years, the other half given dummy pills. They found those taking the vitamins had no more protection against heart attack, stroke or cancer than those taking the dummy pills, and there was no extra benefit to eye or bone health.

Writing in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, academics from the John Hopkins University School of Medicine and the University of Warwick believe there is enough evidence suggesting that “supplementing of well-nourished adults has no clear benefit and might even be harmful”.

The vitamins were absorbed in the body, but it did not show any protective and biological effect. The researchers say this is because the body gets all the vitamins it needs from food.

The medical fraternity also believes that you can get the RDA of all the important nutrients from food. In addition, there is also an argument that the many supplements are synthetic and in forms that cannot be used by the body.

Synthetic molecules, even if they have the same formula, can have different structures which aren’t recognised by human biology and may not be absorbed in the body or may not show similar effects as the natural vitamin from food.

You will be better off getting your nutrients from organic fruit and vegetables, rather than from these artificial vitamins.

Its known folate plays an important role during pregnancy and iron supplements are prescribed for those who are anaemic, but most doctors consider multivitamins a waste of money.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration is pushing for reform which would create a new class of evidence-based complementary medicines. This would mean products would carry some form of indication that the product had been tested for safety and efficacy.

“The new reforms will support Australian consumers in making informed choices about the use of complementary medicines and help protect consumers from potentially misleading therapeutic claims,” the TGA said in a statement.

Most nutritionists believe the best way to take charge of your health is with a balanced diet. Your body can get all the vitamins and minerals it needs from food, if you’re eating mindfully. A healthy meal should consist of 50 percent vegetables, one-quarter grains, and one-quarter protein.

There are certainly medical conditions for which doctors may recommend supplements, but the irony is most people who take them are not the ones who need them. Vitamin users tend to be more affluent and health-conscious than others. So the folks most likely to take supplements are less likely to need them than those who don’t.

The Australian government should take the responsibility to regulate vitamin/natural product and minerals availability and use. Vitamins should not be sold over the counter just because they are labelled natural products. There seem to be no regulations in Australia about who can give vitamin and mineral supplementation advice. That may be reason most of us are taking wrong and unnecessary vitamins.

Vacuous phrases like “improves your inner wellbeing”, “brings out the real you”, or “makes your inside healthier” may sound lovely but mean nothing. So, do not get carried away by these phrases!

I believe that lifestyle changes which address food, exercise, sleep, stress management and environmental exposures should be first line treatment, wherever possible and should come before any supplementation is considered.


The writer is Director, Western Specialist Centre (www.westernspecialistcentre.com.au)

 

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