Why A Daily Vitamin Won't Help Your Health

Forget an apple a day, vitamin manufacturers would have you believe it's important to take daily vitamins to boost your health. And a surprising proportion of Australians do.

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Data from the last National Health survey (back in 1995) showed that up to 30 per cent of Australians had recently taken vitamin or mineral supplements — mostly for preventive health reasons.

More recently, the 45 and Up study of more than 100,000 Australian adults found that 19 per cent of men and 29 per cent of women reported taking vitamin or mineral supplements.

But most healthy people don't need to take vitamins. A better safeguard for your health would be to spend the money you save from not buying supplements, on buying more vegetables and fruit.

The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating (AGHE) translates the national dietary guidelines into recommended daily food serves to help Australians eat better, without the need for vitamins or mineral supplements.

In a nutshell, the aim is for adults to have a minimum daily intake of:

  • two serves of fruit
  • four to five serves of vegetables
  • four to six serves of wholemeal or wholegrain breads and cereals
  • two serves of reduced fat dairy products
  • one serve of lean protein
  • a small amount of healthy fats.

The problem is, we just don't follow the advice in the dietary guidelines, or eat like the patterns suggested in the AGHE.

The last National Nutrition Survey of dietary intakes in adults (from 1995 – this is currently being updated) found that we had inadequate intakes of vegetables, fruit, wholegrain cereals and dairy products. We also consumed too much fat, especially saturated fat and over a third of our daily energy intake came from energy-dense nutrient-poor foods, aka "junk" foods.

So what do we do: turn to vitamin and mineral supplements to make up the shortfall? Or try harder to encourage Australians to eat better?

I vote for the second approach because taking supplement is not without risks.

Take lung cancer, for example. Epidemiological research indicated that eating more fruit and vegetables was associated with a reduced risk of lung cancer. After this relationship was recognised, a number of clinical trials then gave people supplements of beta-carotene, given it's a major carotenoid (pigment) in vegetables and fruit.

But the supplements had the opposite effect and actually increased the risk of lung cancer in smokers.

Medical problems that arise due to excessive intakes of vitamins and minerals are almost always due to intakes of supplements. To develop toxicity from vitamins in food you'd have to eat excessive amounts of specific foods such as carrots (which could make your skin turn yellow) or liver (vitamin A toxicity would leave you with blurred vision, dizziness, nausea and headaches).

There are, however, people with health conditions or in a particular life stage when they really need vitamins. This includes people with chronic medical problems (such as cystic fibrosis, coeliac disease, pancreatitis), people on restrictive diets to achieve rapid weight loss, those with conditions that interfere with their ability to eat properly.

Women planning a pregnancy also require additional nutrients. Folic acid supplements are strongly recommended in early pregnancy to reduce the risk of having a baby with neural-tube defects such as spina bifida.

Let's leave vitamin supplements to those who need them, and call this myth busted.


Are you getting enough vitamins and minerals in your diet?

Take the Five Minute Healthy Eating Quiz. Developed by my colleagues and I at the University of Newcastle, the quiz compares your current eating habits against the Australian Dietary Guidelines. It also provides advice on how to improve the variety and nutritional quality of your usual diet.

Clare Collins is Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics at University of Newcastle and a coauthor of the Healthy Eating Quiz..

The Conversation This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.


Comments

    I've never tried an aspple #correction

    Vitamins may well be snake oil, but you could say the exact same thing about the 'healthy eating' food pyramid that this is pushing.

      As far as I can see no one is trying to sell the healthy eating argument. The government want their citizens to be healthier and subsequently lighten the load on our health services...far from what I'd consider "selling snake oil". All the government linked documents look pretty solid to me, the survey site seems well intended but any simplification of such a complex issue will have holes in it. I like the intent though.

      The benefit of taking vitamin supplements and the effectiveness of individual products are two very separate issues. That aside the title of this article is factually incorrect, supplements help many people. Maybe someone thinks "won't" has more punch than "may not" but when you're handing out health advice I believe accuracy trumps sensationalism.

      Allow me to explain this issue better:
      Plan A: eat a healthy, balanced diet covering all your needs to promote good health.
      Plan B: try to use Plan A but due to life getting the way we take shortcuts and then supplement these shortcuts with vitamins

      Ok so...Plan A is best and if you do this then most likely vitamins will do nothing other than give you bright yellow & smelly piss (oh and lighten your wallet). You'll already have the vitamins you need and your body will just pass out the excess. So Plan A is the goal but if this is not possible then I'd go with Plan B, the point is that you need to be deficient in something for these to be of benefit. And yes...the article does agree that Plan A is best but the dismissal of vitamin supplements on these grounds is like saying band-aids are pointless...just don't cut yourself. People miss meals, eat junk food because its easy, are ignorant of their needs or don't like cooking. There are many reasons people's diets may be inadequate.

      Lets look at the opening sentence of this article: "vitamin manufacturers would have you believe it’s important to take daily vitamins ". This reminds me of those chocolate bar adds when I was younger "a blaaaars a daaaay helps you work, rest and plaaaay" (deliberately not using its real name but it sounds like blars). Wait...you mean that wasn't true? Shock horror! Yes, people...there's some sales trickery going on here but the real message here is not to take health related advice that has been filtered through any marketing team, they have a (not so) hidden agenda other than your well-being.

      Then there's the point about supplements causing an increased risk of lung cancer. Now this is loosely used to convince us that all supplements can't be trusted but if you read the notes you find this: "CONCLUSIONS: High-dose beta-carotene supplementation appears to increase the risk of lung cancer among current smokers. Although beta-carotene was prevalent in multivitamins, high-dose beta-carotene was observed among multivitamin formulas sold to promote visual health." So to me this means so long as you're not taking the pills with extra beta-carotene (ie high dose) then you don't face that risk. This was in no way made clear...deliberately no doubt to sensationalise the minimal risk.

      Eat well or take vitamins? How about making a solid effort to properly educate readers as opposed to this misleading attempt to make the launch of new government guidelines more compelling reading by angering them at misleading drug companies and making them fearful of increased risk of death via cancer. Poor form.

      Eat well my good people! You are what you eat and diet is very important. Obesity and proper brain/body development in our children are massive issues in our society so mastering this side of life and passing it on to your kids is something I believe we should all strive for.

      I started taking vitamins on advice from my doctor but then I have minor health issues effecting my diet and immune system. They don't make me bounce off the walls and feel more energised like in the commercials but instead they keep my body out of the troughs it can fall into due to my often wildly unstructured life messing with my Plan A diet. As an example of the effect they have for me: colds are a few years apart now instead of several a year and usually fall when I forget to take my vitamins for a couple of weeks.

      Please note I have no affiliation with any drug companies and STRONGLY suggest anyone interested in this subject to discuss it with firstly your GP and potentially a dietician. Trained health professionals are where you should be turning for advice on these topics, not marketing teams and journalists...not when it's your health and your family's health at stake. Curiously and dangerously seeing a doctor is recommended nowhere in this article.

      Myth busted? I think not.

        I agree with you Cletus, the issue isn't as simple as this article makes out. That said however this market is increasing massively and there should be some responsibility for these companies to deliver on what their (suppliment) products allegedly deliver.

        Plan A should also include growing all your own vegetables, fruit, raising cows, chickens and so on. There's a lot of debate going on at the moment around the actual nutritional value of food given intensive farming techniques.

        Plan B if you speak to your GP blood tests won't actually show up any deficiency unless you know specifically what you're missing to start with, kind of makes that part difficult. However it is well known that Tasmania soils are poor in Iodine and in WA lacking magnesium. Where your food comes from on the Supermarket shelf is another question.

        If you do want to buy suppliments then stick to the good ones, Ethical Nutrients is the Retail brand of Metagenics that are Praticioner only products. You can find plenty of decent stuff in the US such as Beyond Health but shipping is difficult and expensive.

        And last but not least people tend not to look at the first line in your health which is your gut system. Probiotics are a good start and can help get the nutrients you need without spending excess on other vitamins.

    So, what do these "serves" actually amount to?

    Last edited 17/12/12 5:25 pm

      Very roughly a handful

        Your hand full or mine? (I have really big hands)

          Haha I don't know. Roughly the handful of the worksafe health check nurse who showed me. Ask her. Although I guess if your hands are proportionate to the rest of your body, then the question is irrelevant.

    Just took the quiz, but are you seriously saying that adding tomato or bbq sauce as part of your meal is a good thing?
    Aren't they usually packed full of salt and sugar?

      For those that haven't taken the quiz, at the end they list under Extra - condiments:
      "Having tomato sauce regularly can provide important nutrients for health, including beta-carotene and lycopene"

      Surely that is the biggest load of shite around. As Tiges said tomato sauce is essentially water, sugar and salt.

    "Let’s leave vitamin supplements to those who need them, and call this myth busted."

    The people taking them do think they need them.

    There's a HUGE difference between one supplement and another. Some are near-pure distilled vitamins, which are of severely limited use. Others are concentrated whole organic vegetable matter, which are the nutritional equivalent (minus fibre and water) of their constitutent fruit/veges. Then there are specific supplements such as cod-liver oil and glucosamine.

    I feel the title is misleading. the entire body of the article is just saying that vitamin supplements aren't as good for you as vegetables.

    Assuming you're not getting the required levels of vitamins from food, supplements will help - they're just not the optimum way to get them into your system.

    Last edited 17/12/12 5:28 pm

    Low fat is a con, have all the fat you want. Avoid grains and sugars, they make you fat. If it is processed and comes in a package, 99i% chances are they are not worth eating.

      "Low fat is a con, have all the fat you want. Avoid grains and sugars, they make you fat."
      This is what every crossfitter/body builder I know says, and none of them look healthy. I don't believe for a second that eating fat isn't bad for you, nor do I believe that you shouldn't be eating grains.

    This piece lost all credibility in the first sentence. " Forget an aspple a day, "

      You're expecting them to use some sort of magic 'spell checker'? Hah, if only such things existed.

      Waaaaiiit a minute...

    What about vitamin D. Pretty common to need that for a lot of us northern European ethnic types. Curse those Viking genes.

    As always - supplements may only be useful if dietary intake is inadequate.

    "actually increased the risk of lung cancer in smokers."
    So I should stop having a multivitamin, and take up smoking.

    Do you know how expensive this would be per day!?:
    two serves of fruit
    four to five serves of vegetables
    four to six serves of wholemeal or wholegrain breads and cereals
    two serves of reduced fat dairy products
    one serve of lean protein
    a small amount of healthy fats.

    Quite Expensive, It would be a lot cheaper to just buy the multi-vitamins and eat tuna wraps for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

      I don't know that I eat enough food in a day to get all of this in!

    “Clare Collins is Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics at University of Newcastle”

    That is the only thing which I will remember for this post. The fact she is a professor and signed off on a something which recommends people eat more tomato sauce to improve their health is shameful.

    Beta-carotene can be obtained in the diet from carrots, kale, spinach and a number of other smarter choices. I’ll pay that tomatoes are a great source of lycopene, but in all likelihood, it would be smarter to eat a tomatoes in any other from rather than a hyper processed tomato flavoured sludge.

    So, as a pharmacy student working in a pharmacy, I have my own view on this topic.

    Firstly, if you aren't deficient in vitamins or minerals, they aren't going to help you. The body can only store a finite amount of each vitamin and mineral, and the rest just gets excreted along with everything else (ie. urine and faeces).

    The only way to know if you are truly deficient and require supplements is to have a blood test. If you do come up deficient, you will benefit from supplements for a set period of time, until the levels are up to normal levels, after which, the excess will just be excreted along with everything else.

    Vitamin and mineral supplements are just that: they are designed to supplement vitamin and mineral deficient diets. They aren't designed to replace a healthy well balanced diet, as eating a balanced diet also provides fibre, protein, etc that a multivitamin can not provide.

    *stepped off soap box*

    The only way we'll get to the true facts about what's healthy is if everything to do with health is removed from the economy, ie any type of trade system.

    There are fundamental problems behind the medical professions claims:
    1. That a proper diet means you don't need supplements; and;
    2. Don't eat fat.

    On the supplement front, many women have low iron level and need iron tabs, many people are low in Vitamin D and are given of all things "fat" supplements which the body converts to Vitamin D. Over 50% of the population are Atopic. This means they have hayfever, asthma or dermatitis to varying degrees. Many of these people accordingly also react to certain foods with an allergic reaction of varying severity. People diagnosed with food allergies will likely be short of vitamins due to their restricted diets. If they are undiagnosed atopics, they will be eating foods their body will not properly process due to the consequent allergic reactions occurring (of varying severity).

    We eat foods grown on land that has been farmed for 50-100 years. In Australia this land is not a flood plain that is replenished with laying down of fresh nutrients in annual floods. The only nutrients added back to soil is NPK, nitrogen phosporous and potassium. No iron, calcium etc etc is added back so these trace elements have become depleted. The consequence being our diet is lower in these trace elements now than in the past.

    Accordingly this supplement issue is not black and white, and if greater than 50% of the population has a chance they are not properly absorbing nutrients due to atopicity or because they are female (iron deficiency), or because they are white (Vitamin D deficiency) or because of depleted farmland soils then the medical and health advice is fundamentally flawed as it is not aimed at the average "real" population but an "idealised population in perfect health:.

    Many of us eat a highly processed diet which is high fat, high salt, high carbohydrate and high sugar diet with the result of obesity and an increasing % of diabetics. I strongly wonder that the impact of the excess carbohydrates & sugar in our diet is the key factor (given the high demand for insulin production) rather than fat because our bodies have a great capability for speedily converting sugars and carbohydrates to stored fat before processing dietary fat.

    On the fat front, no researcher has confirmed the mechanisms by which the various fats we eat are actually converted into the type of fat we humans do store in our bodies. However our bodies do have a very strong preference to process sugars well before fats. This article summarises this issue, albeit only the SMH, however I am sure there are decent sources: http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/diet-and-fitness/the-fat-and-the-fiction-20121205-2avgo.html

    We are also repeatedly told all fat is bad, however some fats are good. Fish oils, avocadoes and olive oil all have benefits to humans. Nonetheless, some fats are bad, not for weight gain, but for those who are predisposed to arterial plaque build-up.

    Cholesterol is another related measure but an incomplete one, People with low cholesterol have died from the consequences of the breakaway of plaque build-ups (stroke, heart attacks). And those with high cholesterol have lived long and fit lives. So the cholesterol measure, the good and bad measures are part indicators. Arterial inflammation is a better indicator of plaque build-up but there is no easy test for this as yet. So what are the causes of arterial inflammation and how can this be managed?

    I need also to remind everyone of the two Australian Doctors who through tenacity, testing and self infection proved stomach ulcers were caused by bacteria when the rest of the Australian medical profession treated them as idiots. Even after they won the Nobel prize there were Australian doctors who did not believe them and continued to treat ulcers the old way. International doctors where actually quick to pick up on this new treatment, hence the Nobel prize award. See http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/4304290.stm

    My point here is that doctors are fallible, and only have the knowledge that is written in their textbooks. The profession in generally also clearly struggles to accept new ideas and therapies, even when the old ideas and theories have been proven wrong. This is actually very scary because you will on balance not be given the most suitable proven therapy or treatment when you see your GP, unless a drug company will make money out of it.

    My opinion is the supplement and fat paradigms also fall into this outdated medical knowledge category. And the reason it is not properly researched is there is no money in it for a drug company.

    I stand by to be flamed...

    Last edited 23/12/12 12:01 pm

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