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Staying healthy is a goal we all share. More and more of us are turning to vitamins and supplements to improve our health and well-being. But are vitamins really essential?
Amy Chien-Yu Wang

31 Jul 2018 - 11:47 AM  UPDATED 10 Aug 2018 - 11:48 AM

This year the world will be spending over a $100 billion on vitamins and supplements as people increasingly seek a quick fix in these nutrient-dense products.

Adelaide-based dietician Anne Schneyder, is not convinced that most people need a regular intake of vitamins from supplements.

“I think that you can obtain the vitamins and minerals that you require from food and good healthy eating. I think that a range of foods from all of the food groups is able to give you what you need without relying on supplements. There are probably a few people who have got particular medical problems or particular issues that might need a supplement but by and large the majority of us don't need to take anything extra.”

Different rules may apply to ageing people and those with medical issues who are more prone to a vitamin deficiency.

Anne Schneyder says she routinely takes Omega-3 fish oil to manage her arthritis.

“So a person that might have medical problem - that means that they’re not eating a good range of foods. So, let’s say, for example, a person who is quite a bit older, their appetite might have decreased, they might be living alone, they might not be cooking meals for themselves adequately, then they might benefit from a multivitamin. Someone who’s a strict vegetarian might need a B12 supplement. A person that doesn't eat much red meat might need an iron supplement, but, by and large, we can get everything that we need from foods whether you’re a vegetarian or not.”

As an endurance runner in her fifties, Anita Jarvis says she takes four different supplements per day to help her recover from training. Buying supplements can get expensive but she says the benefits are worth it.

“So I take a turmeric-based vitamin which helps the inflammation in my legs. I take magnesium for the same benefits. I get a lot of cramping when I run. Tablets during winter to ward off getting sick, and, so far, it’s helped. The last two years, I haven’t been sick at all. Botanical-based vitamin that keep my insides working well. Beetroot juice to help with my running.”

Science educator Dr Derek Muller has just completed a documentary exploring the truth about vitamins, a supplement consumed by almost a billion people worldwide.

“I would say, you know, if you’re getting a balanced diet of fresh fruit and vegies and all your other things and you’re mixing it up and you're not just eating one type of thing, getting exercise, getting outdoors, a little bit of sunlight to get some vitamin D, I would say you’re likely healthy as far as it comes to your diet and nutrition are concerned. And if you’re not eating well and you’re popping a multivitamin to sort of make up for it I would suggest that it doesn’t completely make up for it.”

But what then is the role of vitamin supplements?

“When people don't get enough vitamins they get sick and in some cases, can die. So, a vitamin deficiency is a very serious thing. And vitamins in such cases are very powerful molecules.”

One of the world’s largest health consumers, it’s easy to get lost in the over 85,000 varieties of vitamins and supplements available in Australia.

“I think the consumer can do a lot of research, a lot of homework to try to figure out where these things are coming from. Ultimately, it is a little tricky and it is a trust-based system whereby Australian manufacturers are meant to test their raw ingredients to make sure they are what they say they are. But there’s not always that level of follow up or testing by an independent regulator to find out whether they have achieved actually the correct product. There’s also a question of ‘do they deliver on the promises that they claim to make?” 

Sally Brooks is a senior pharmacist at Melbourne’s Peter MacCallum Cancer Research Centre. She explains that some supplements such as fish oil, ginger and green tea may cause more harm than good.     

“There are concerns associated with taking some supplements or vitamins in patients over the age of fifty or any age who have cancer. Although many supplements or complementary medicines may be safe when they’re taken by themselves, there are some which may interfere with conventional cancer treatments.”

Checking with your doctor, pharmacist or nutritionist before taking on a new product is vital.

 “If your doctor identified a deficiency and prescribes a supplement to rectify that then it’s also a good course of action to take. So it’s really in those cases of deficiency where vitamins are essential and must be used to achieve the proper improvement in health.”

To avoid unnecessary health consequences, Dr Muller encourages everyone to take a critical approach to vitamins and supplements.

“When you are trying to ask the question which pills should I be taking I would say, ‘stop’ and first ask yourself, ‘What food should I be eating? What lifestyle changes can I be making to achieve this without adding something to my diet?”

Vitamania featuring Dr Derek Muller premieres on Sunday, August 12 on SBS at 8.30pm and will be available on SBS On Demand thereafter.