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Food & Nutrition

Do Vitamin Supplements Work?

Are we all being swizzed to the tune of $90bn a year?

Do Vitamin Supplements Work?

The global trade in vitamins and other supplements currently generates around $90bn annually, and that frankly ridonkulous figure is rising at a rate of around 4% every year. We’re all positively rattlin‘ with feelgood pills. We want to know one thing: do vitamin supplements work?

But for every person who swears by their daily dose of A-to-Z, there’s a diet and nutrition expert proclaiming that vitamin supplements are little more than modern-day snake oil – a confidence trick played on the health-conscious, on a truly massive scale.

So who’s right? We spoke to registered dietitian Katie Richards to get the no-messing truth on whether or not vitamin supplements are a right load of pointless old bollocks.

Hi Katie. So are vitamin supplements a waste of money? Do we get all the vitamins we could ever need from the food we eat? Do vitamin supplements work? 

“If you’re eating a healthy, varied diet – sufficient fruit and vegetables, enough protein, foods containing the required amounts of iron and micronutrients [i.e. vitamins and minerals] – then yes, you shouldn’t need a vitamin supplement on top of that.

“Obviously, there are exceptions. If someone has a limited vegetarian diet, for example, then you might advise the supplementation of certain micronutrients.

It can be quite dangerous taking huge doses of a supplement

“If we did encounter someone who was really set on taking a supplement, we’d advise them against taking mega-doses. Some people, for example, will take mega-doses of vitamin C. There’s no benefit to taking huge doses of a micronutrient, and it can even be quite dangerous.

“As a dietitian, the only thing I’d recommend to someone who was worried about their vitamin intake would be an A-to-Z vitamin supplement, which’ll have everything they need. But generally, if someone’s eating a well-balanced diet, they won’t need any supplements at all.”

If vitamin supplements are of no use whatsoever to most people, how the hell has the industry ballooned to become such a bazillion-dollar money-spinner? 

“I think they’re sometimes seen as a bit of a quick fix. People get the idea that if they’re taking something, ‘Well it must be doing me good.’

People get the idea that if they’re taking something, ‘Well it must be doing me good’

“With things like antioxidants, glucosamine, cod liver oil, they’re not going to do you any harm, and there’s a small amount of evidence that they’ll do you good, but people are prepared to spend quite a lot of money on them, in some cases – particularly if people are feeling fatigued, they can often put those low energy levels down to a deficiency of some kind, and head to the supplements aisle in the supermarket. They’ll look at the labels, see something that claims it can increase your energy levels, and go for that.

“And it goes beyond vitamin supplements, I think, and even into medications. Do vitamin supplements work? Some people, if they learn they have high cholesterol, will go to their GP and ask them for a pill to fix it – rather than looking at their diet and reducing their saturated fat intake and so on.

“So a pill can be seen as a quick fix. It’s a lot easier to buy some multivitamin pills than it is to get more fresh fruit and vegetables into your diet.”

Obviously, the supplement companies themselves aren’t going to offer the most transparent advice on their wares. So where can people turn? 

“Well the British Dietetic Association is always a reliable source of information. ‘Dietitian’ is a protected title, so to call yourself a dietitian you have to be fully registered. Any advice given to you by a dietitian will be evidence-based, and we’re Health & Care Professions Council registered, so we’re bound by certain rules and duties of care.

There are nutritionists who’ll take your money and give you all sorts of shady advice

“In terms of nutritionists… ‘Nutrionist’ is not a protected title, and while there are some fabulous nutritionists out there who give really good, reasoned advice, there are also nutritionists out there who’ll take your money and give you all sorts of shady advice. They might tell you cut to out wheat or dairy or whatever without any real evidence or rationale as to why.”

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