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Vitamin supplements may not be all that beneficial: research

There are ways to up your iron intake. Source: Getty Images

An international study has found that some health supplements may not only be useless but also harmful.

About 60 per cent of Australians take vitamin supplements, spending billions of dollars every year.

But an international study has found some vitamin and mineral supplements do little to improve people's health and, in some cases, may actually increase the risk of death.

Australians spend more than $10 billion a year on vitamin and mineral supplements.

But nutritional scientist and dietician Rob Haala, at the Melbourne-based dietitian practice Nutrition For Life, says they are not very effective. “There are limits to how much vitamins and minerals our body can absorb and utilise, and, for the average person who’s healthy, who doesn’t have a nutritional deficiency, then taking extra, in the form of supplementation, is not going to be beneficial,” Mr Haala says.

And when it comes to treating or preventing serious conditions, new research led by Professor David Jenkins at the University of Toronto, in Canada, has concluded there is little to no benefit there either. “And if you took the most popular ones -- the Vitamin C, D, multivitamin, calcium -- they actually did nothing, in terms of cardiovascular disease,” says Prof. Jenkins.

For the research, an international team of nutritional scientists analysed all the published trials on the effect of supplement use.

Professor Jenkins says, whereas some supplements such as folic acid were effective in preventing stroke in regions such as China, researchers found niacin, or Vitamin B3, and antioxidants may actually cause harm. Adds Prof. Jenkins: "We saw that antioxidant mixtures were not helpful -- in fact, had a small signal, a very small signal, for increased risk of all-cause mortality, death by any cause."

Dr Ian Musgrave, from the faculty of medicine at the University of Adelaide, says the risk was small, but real, and the findings were similar to research conducted about supplement use in cancer patients. "We’ve also known from studies trying to prevent cancer that the fat-soluble antioxidant vitamins, in fact, cause more problems, and, indeed, they’re associated with an increase in lung cancer in smokers,” Dr. Musgrave says.

Complementary Medicines Australia says Australian consumers have access to the safest and highest-quality products, meeting pharmaceutical standards and Therapeutic Goods Administration guidelines.

Dietitian Rob Haala's advice for the average person is simply to get back to basics. “So, going for our fruits and vegetables, going for our wholegrains, going for our oily fish, our avocado and nuts and seeds, and focusing on the positive things you can be eating,” Mr Haala says.

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