Do I Need to Take a Vitamin Supplement?

~ August 2002 No.153 ~

There have been several reports in the scientific literature lately that have cast some doubt about the benefits of taking a vitamin supplement every day. These studies have made their way to the popular press and have added to the public‘s confusion. Do I need to take a vitamin supplement? Which vitamins should I take? Am I wasting my money? Will I be healthier if I take supplements? Do researchers really know what‘s good for my health? These are all questions that people are asking. The experts often seem to be contradicting each other.

Fruits and vegetables are important parts of our diet because they contain a wide range of vitamins. The amount of each vitamin that we need each day is not large compared to other nutrients in the diet, but they are very important. Any long term deficiency in our vitamin intake can lead to alterations in our metabolism, affects growth, reproductive problems and lowered ability to fight disease and infection.

Health officials have long recognized the benefit of fruits and vegetables. This is why most national health agencies recommend large numbers of serving of fruits and vegetables in the diet each day. Therein lies the problem. Most of us don‘t eat as healthy as we are told we should, or as well as we think we do. If we all ate the recommended number of portions of fruits and vegetables each and every day we probably wouldn‘t need supplements. But most of us don‘t. In the United States, about 41% of people surveyed reported eating the recommended number of servings of vegetables per day and only 23% were eating the recommended number of servings of fruit.

Supplements make good sense for those who can‘t fit three nutritious meals into their hectic schedules. Three specific groups who are especially vulnerable are people who have restricted intakes due to disease, lack of appetite (in older people) or those who have increased requirements (during pregnancy, some medical treatments). For many it is cheap insurance. For a few pennies a day a vitamin supplement will ensure that you are getting the vitamins you need. Overdoses are rare; usually any excess vitamins - especially the water soluble vitamins - are excreted in the urine.

As the name implies, these pills are intended to supplement our diet, not replace it. An apple or an orange contains far more than just vitamins. Experiments to show the long term benefits on vitamin consumption are very hard to carry out, and the data is often inconsistent. It may take many studies to get a clear picture of the role vitamins play in health and disease resistance.

Recommended servings of fruit and vegetables
Canadian Recommendations(Health Canada)5-10 servings / day fruits and vegetables
United States Recommendations (USDA)3-5 servings / day vegetables
2-4 servings / day fruits
Great Britain Recommendations5 servings / day fruits and vegetables

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