This article has been written by Registered Dietitian, Katherine Kimber to help iron out confusion when it comes to taking vitamin and mineral supplements and to answer your most commonly asked questions.
What are vitamins and minerals?
These are nutrients your body needs in small amounts to work properly and stay healthy. Most people should get all the nutrients they need by having a varied and balanced diet and, in the case of Vitamin D through sunlight, although some few people may need to take extra supplements.
Do I need to take a vitamin supplement?
There is not a clear cut yes or no answer to this question, both because of the variety of products available and because an individual’s circumstances which will determine whether they would benefit from using a particular supplement.
The Department of Health recommends certain supplements for some groups of people who are at risk of deficiency.
• All women thinking of having a baby should have a folic acid supplement, as should any pregnant woman up to week 12 of her pregnancy.
• People aged 65 and over should take vitamin D supplements.
• People with darker skin and people who are not exposed to much sun should take vitamin D supplements.
• All adults are advised to consider taking a vitamin D supplement of 10 micrograms per day between the months of September and April.
• All children aged six months to five years should be given a supplement containing vitamins A, C and D.
It’s always a good idea to talk to your GP or to a registered dietitian if you’re considering supplementing your diet. They can give you advice about whether supplements will have health benefits for you in your particular circumstances.
Is there a best time to take Vitamins and Supplements?
What time of day should I take vitamins and supplements?
How do I know if the supplements are from a reputable source?
Depending on how a supplement is classified (e.g. as food or medicine), it will be subject to different regulation. In the UK most products described as food supplements (such as vitamins, minerals or amino acids) are regulated as foods and subject to the provisions of general food law such as the Food Safety Act and the Department of Health (DoH). In the USA, food supplements are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). All businesses selling supplements are responsible for ensuring that the supplements they sell are safe for consumption. If you’re not sure whether a supplement is reputable, below are the important things to look out for. A reputable supplement supplier will:
If you are taking supplements in line with the recommendations on the packet (adhering to the correct dose, timing, allergens and consuming them within the use by date), they will likely be safe for human consumption. However, it could easily be interpreted that taking vitamins can’t really do any harm. Although the doses of vitamins and minerals found in most supplements are thought to be safe, very high levels can be harmful.
Surely the higher dose the better?
You could experience some harm if you take vitamins in large amounts over long periods of time.
Here are some examples:
• Beta-carotene, which is turned into vitamin A by the body, has been found to increase the risk of lung cancer in current and former smokers, and in people who have been heavily exposed to asbestos.
• High levels of niacin (vitamin B3) can cause skin flushes in some people.
• Too much vitamin B6 can lead to loss of feeling in the arms and legs.
• Levels of vitamin C above 1,000mg a day can cause abdominal pain and diarrhoea.
Safe upper limits of many vitamins and minerals have been set by the Food Standards Agency and can be found in their 2003 report. It’s important to check with a healthcare professional before taking any supplements. This is to ensure you are advised on the appropriate dose for your needs and that they do not interfere with other medication you may be taking.
Are there any ingredients which are not safe?
There are two known ingredients to be aware of that are not fit for human consumption.
1. DNP (Dinitrophenol) in Fat-burning and Slimming Pills. This can be extremely dangerous to human health, and can even lead to coma or death. Products to look out for include; Dinosan, Solfo Black, Nitrophen, Aldifen, Chemox, Yellow Magic.
2. DMAA (Dimethlyamylamine) is an ingredient often described as a “natural” stimulant. It has many claimed functional uses including as a body building or a weight loss aid. DMAA use (especially in combination with other ingredients such as caffeine) can elevate blood pressure and lead to cardiovascular problems, and has also been linked with stroke and death. Products to look out for include; Black Widow, Get Ripped, Jack’d Upd, Stimerex, Tiger Claw.
Is it better to take the individual supplement or a multivitamin?
Whilst multivitamins may be cheaper than buying individual supplements, taking a blanket multivitamin supplement may not be appropriate.
There are some cases where a multivitamin may be of benefit, for example in those who are unable to eat a balanced diet through illness, mental health conditions, or malabsorption. In general, you should be able to get all the vitamins and minerals you need through your diet.
Supplements that are recommended in the UK include:
• vitamin D supplements, especially during autumn and winter
• folic acid during pregnancy
• vitamins A, C and D for children aged 6 months to 5 years
If you are taking vitamin preparations that provide a combination of vitamins and minerals, it’s worth checking the label for overlap.
How do I know how much to take?
The Department of Health set Dietary Reference Values (DRVs) for the UK population. DRVs provide information on the amount of energy and nutrients including vitamins and minerals that a group of people of a certain age range (and sometimes sex) needs for good health. DRVs only apply to healthy people.
Dietary supplements and certain foods therefore carry labels denoting the percentage of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) contained in the product. RDAs are based on the DRVs and are used across all European countries. RDAs have a few differences from DRVs and are used only for food labelling purposes.
The NHS provides an overview of individual vitamins and minerals which may help determine what each nutrient does, how much you need and what the safe upper levels are. It’s worth checking with a pharmacist, doctor, or registered dietitian if you are unsure.
Is taking a vitamin with 100% RDA bad for me?
When you get 100% of a nutrient’s RDA, it means that you are getting enough of the nutrient to meet the average daily need for a generally healthy adult. “100% RDA” means that there is enough of the nutrient to cover the general biochemical need for that nutrient in the human body for one day. It does not guarantee, however, that you have enough of the nutrient to meet your personal, individual needs. For example, there are many chronic health problems that deplete certain nutrients from you body. These problems would cause your body to need more than 100% RDA as would the use of certain prescription or over-the-counter medications. The 100% RDA guideline is simply a ballpark estimate that should get you thinking in the correct general category of nutrition.
When you go over 100% RDA, it simply means that you have likely provided your body with more than enough of the nutrient to meet your body’s general biochemical needs on that day. Your body will decide what to do the extra amount. It may decide to eliminate it altogether, and so you will find it passing out of the body when you urinate or move your bowel. Your body may also decide to store the nutrient, either temporarily or for a longer period of time.
In general, it is not recommended that you go over approximately 100% RDA for any particular nutrient unless you have been advised by a healthcare professional that more is needed.
Does higher price equal better quality?
The label is what is the most important. If you’re considering a vitamin supplement, read the label and compare information as well as ingredients. Some vitamins, even the expensive ones, may contain more fillers than the actual ingredient. Always ensure that the particular vitamin you choose are from a reputable source (see above).
Are the other “filler” ingredients in the supplements safe?
If you are taking supplements from a reputable source (see above) then ingredients within the supplements will be deemed safe for human consumption. This is as long as the supplement is consumed within the recommendations on the packet. You may see additional ingredients like “modified cellulose gum” or “magnesium stearate” or flavourings. These may be included in the products to increase the palatability of the supplements, to bulk them out, to increase their use by date, and generally to make the products safe for consumption. These ingredients are regulated by the FSA and DoH and are deemed safe for consumption in the recommended doses on the packaging.
How do I know if the supplements are working?
Some supplements might be taken for a diagnosed deficiency due to dietary insufficiency such as Iron deficiency. On experiencing ongoing tiredness and breathlessness, after a visit to the GP and some blood tests, one might be prescribed some iron supplements. After 3 months the symptoms might clear up, the iron levels are re-tested and return to normal, and there is clear evidence that the supplements have worked.
How do I know if they are vegan/vegetarian friendly?
The supplement will state on the packet whether it is suitable for vegans or vegetarians.
Is there anything I need to be mindful of during or pre-pregnancy?
Yes. It’s recommended that you take 400 micrograms of folic acid each day – from before you’re pregnant until you’re 12 weeks pregnant. This is to reduce the risk of problems in the baby’s development in the early weeks of pregnancy. Some women are advised to take higher doses and it’s recommended that you speak to your healthcare advisor for individual advice.
The Department of Health and Social Care also advises you to consider taking a vitamin D supplement of 10 micrograms per day.
It is advised to avoid taking vitamin A supplements or any supplements containing vitamin A (retinol), as too much could harm your baby. Always check the label.
Those who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet may find it difficult to get enough B12 and Iron. It is therefore important to talk to your midwife or doctor about how to make sure you’re getting enough of these important nutrients.
This article is not a substitute for proper medical diagnosis or dietary advice given by a dietitian or your doctor.