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Why do we take vitamin supplements?

BY Dr Max Pemberton

24th May 2023 Wellbeing

Why do we take vitamin supplements?

Dr Max muses why some people (himself included) choose to take vitamin supplements when the evidence suggests there is no need

Every day I do something that, in certain circles, would raise a few eyebrows. If you’re honest, I bet lots of you do it too. While I know that the evidence suggests I am wasting my time and money, each day without fail, I take a fist-full of vitamin supplements.

"Cold liver oil, ginseng, vitamin B complex and garlic. And where would I be without my Echinacea? In bed, nursing a life-threatening cold, no doubt"

It started off innocently enough—a multi-vitamin while I was recovering from flu a few years ago. More recently I noticed that I’d developed a funny creaking sound in my knees. Imagining my future life in a wheelchair, despite the assurances of a rheumatologist friend, I started taking cod liver oil. After that, it was easy to add in ginseng, then vitamin B complex, and garlic. And, of course, where would I be without my Echinacea? In bed, nursing a life-threatening cold, no doubt.

Do vitamin supplements work?

Illustration of various vitamins and pillsCredit: nadia_bormotova

The evidence would suggest that, as I have a fairly balanced diet, I’m not infirm, pregnant or alcoholic, there is absolutely no need for me to take any form of supplement. Countless studies have shown that they make absolutely no difference, except to your wallet. In addition to this, research is also emerging that suggests taking excessive amounts of supplements can actually do harm.

This got me thinking about the nation’s penchant for pill-popping. That we need vitamins and minerals is not in dispute. That we need them from a bottle is what scientists would challenge. Studies have shown that vitamin supplements simply don’t work in the same way as those occurring naturally in food, probably because it’s not just the vitamin that is important but a whole complex interplay between naturally occurring substances which just can’t be replicated and packaged.

"Studies have shown that vitamin supplements simply don’t work in the same way as those occurring naturally in food"

In an often-cited study conducted by Cornell University, for example, it was found that apples contained many other naturally occurring chemicals in addition to vitamin C, including antioxidants called flavanoids and polyphenols. This meant that eating a small apple gave an antioxidant effect equivalent to taking 1500mg of vitamin C, far higher than most supplements, and in addition were found to have anti-allergy, anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties as a result of the array of other chemicals they contained, termed phytochemicals.

So objectively, it’s clear, for your average person living an average life, there is absolutely no need to take them.

So why take vitamin supplements?

woman taking a pill with water illustrationCredit: Feodora Chiosea

But the crucial questions is: do I feel any better since I started taking supplements? And the answer is a resounding “yes”. I don’t feel healthier; I don’t get fewer colds. I can’t remember whole decks of playing cards or lift cars off trapped children. But I no longer worry that in some way my diet is letting me down. I’m careful not to exceed recommended daily allowances of vitamin supplements but taking a few pills each morning means I don’t feel guilty when I eat a pizza and leave the salad, or when I have Coco Pops instead of muesli.

"I haven’t become more cavalier in my attitude to my health since taking vitamin supplements, just less worried about it"

This feeling of guilt and anxiety is a direct result of all the scaremongering from the medical and scientific communities about how we’re all facing ill-health because we don’t eat properly. It seems to me that the boom in vitamin supplements is a direct result of the pressure that we’re put under to lead healthy lives. It’s an artefact of the anxiety that they manufacture. Vitamin supplements aren’t really about not getting colds, saving our hearts or improving our nervous system. It’s about feeling a bit more relaxed about eating banoffee pie instead of a banana.

I get a strange satisfaction from my little morning ritual. I haven’t become more cavalier in my attitude to my health since taking supplements, just less worried about it. I believe that somehow, despite the evidence, they must be doing me good. I hand over my money, pop the pills and, most importantly, relax. And for that reason, they’re worth every penny.

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