Almost one in three people in the UK take a vitamin supplement every day, according to the Food Standards Authority, while 15 per cent of us turn to high-dose supplements for a quick fix.
But do vitamin pills really deliver the health and vitality they promise?
Supplements are taken as a ‘health insurance’ to boost energy, slow down the effects of ageing and reduce the risk of chronic disease.
They have become big business in the process.
Of £209 million spent on supplements in 2009, we popped £139 million in multivitamin pills and guzzled a whopping £36 million in immune-boosting vitamin C.
We do need vitamins but more is not necessarily better.
Mega doses of single vitamins can have toxic effects.
Particular care is needed when taking fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin A.
Stored in the liver, it can accumulate to reach toxic levels and cause liver damage.
Why take vitamins?
Present in low levels in our bodies, but essential to every aspect of our health, vitamins are substances our bodies cannot make. Therefore, they must be obtained through diet.
Vitamins perform key functions:
- Vitamin C builds immunity and connective tissue.
- Vitamin A enhances immunity and helps growth.
- B-vitamins are essential for energy.
- Vitamin D strengthens bones.
We would die without vitamins and fall seriously ill when we don’t get the right amount.
While a balanced diet should provide our complete vitamin quota, nutritionists argue that modern life often leaves us depleted.
Intensive agriculture, fast-growth crops and food processing means our food is significantly lower in minerals and vitamins than it used to be.
Meanwhile, high-speed lifestyles leave many people gulping down pre-made meals and grabbing a coffee – not a recipe for nutritional balance.
‘In the ideal world, people would eat home cooked meals with fresh ingredients made from whole foods,’ says Amelia Freer, a nutritionist at Freer Nutrition in West London. ‘Reality falls far short of this.’
Drinks like black tea and coffee can reduce mineral absorption while fizzy drinks and sugar contain almost no vitamins.
Chronic stress also depletes vitamin supply. ‘Cortisol, the hormone released with stress, uses up B-vitamins and vitamin C and in the long term can burn you out while draining your body of vitamins,’ says Freer.