Vitamin supplements: helpful or harmful

There are so many advertisements telling you to take this vitamin and that supplement, but have you ever stopped to think about how much money you’re spending and whether you really need the product for your best health?

Trent Watson, an accredited practising dietician and spokesperson at the Dieticians Association of Australia recently told the Huffington Post that daily vitamin supplements can not only be unnecessary, they can also be dangerous.

“Vitamins and minerals are essential for a whole range of different processes within the body,” Watson says. “However, the interesting thing about vitamins and minerals is they are probably only needed in small amounts and not in megadose amounts found in supplements.”

According to the Victorian Government’s Better Health Channel, most of the vitamins and minerals you get from food are better than those contained in pill form, suggesting that a diet rich in plant-based foods is best to maintain optimal health.

Watson says that in some cases, large amounts of antioxidants can cause you more harm than good. He highlights several studies that have found high doses of beta-carotene have increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers, while too much vitamin E increases the risk of prostate cancer and one type of stroke.

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Vitamins and other supplements are intended to replace foods, and they certainly can’t replace all of the nutrients and benefits of whole foods.

“Someone who follows a reasonably balanced diet, which includes fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads and cereals, and some meat or meat alternative, is generally going to meet all of those nutrient requirements,” Watson says.

However, when the food on your plate falls short and doesn’t include essential nutrients such as calcium, potassium, vitamin D and vitamin B12, just some of the vitamins Australians don’t get enough of, a vitamin supplement can help ‘pick up the slack’.

Here are a few quick tips to guide your vitamin and mineral selection:

  • Think nutritious food when you are doing your grocery shopping, and try and refrain from filling your shopping trolley with foods that are not regarded as nourishing and nutrient-rich.
  • Assess your diet habits. Learn about the nutrients you might be missing out on from foods you don’t currently eat and consider a supplement to help meet those needs.
  • A daily multivitamin is said to be safer than taking a cocktail of individual supplements that can exceed the safe daily dose recommended of any nutrient.
  • If your diet consists of fast food and sweet drinks of low nutritional value, understand a vitamin supplement will not provide you with success. You need to rethink your diet and make changes. Consider doing it with a registered dietician.
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Nutrients you might be missing

It’s a challenge ensuring you get enough nutrition in the foods you ear as you get older, so here are the top vitamins and minerals to keep an eye on… And what you can do to ensure you get enough.

Vitamin B12 for red blood cells and DNA, and for maintaining a healthy nerve function. If you are low in B12, consider upping your intake of fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk and milk products.

Folic acid (or folate) might be considered critical for pregnant women, but if you’re not getting enough fruit, vegetables or whole grains in your diet, you could be coming up short. Most breakfast cereals have some sort of folate in them, but if you’re in doubt talk to your health professional about a supplement.

Calcium plays a crucial role in maintaining strong bones. Reduce your risk of brittle bones and fractures by ensuring you get enough calcium in your diet.

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Vitamin D, which helps your body absorb calcium, maintain bone density and prevent osteoporosis, can also protect against some chronic diseases. You can find sources in milk, some yoghurt, juice, salmon, tuna and eggs.

Potassium is essential for cell function and can also have a positive effect on your blood pressure and your risk of developing kidney stones. Fruits like bananas, prunes, plums and potatoes are particularly rich in potassium.

Magnesium can help keep your immune system in great shape, as well as keeping your heart health and your bones strong. You’ll find it in fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and seeds.

Water might not sound like a vitamin or mineral, but you need it for good health. Your sense of thirst declines as you get older, so look to drink three to five glasses of water each day.

Do you take vitamin supplements? Share your thoughts on this topic with us.