Advertisements for vitamins and supplements are everywhere and they are a market worth three quarters of a million pounds in the UK but who should be taking them and do they really make a difference to our health?
There are 13 different vitamins and they are essential nutrients that allow the body to function properly. There are two types of vitamins, water soluble and fat soluble. Nine of the thirteen are water soluble vitamins like vitamin C and vitamin B. This means they can be easily flushed out of the body. The remaining four are then fat soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E and K which get stored in the body's fat tissue.
The key fact is that vitamins cannot be produced by the human body so it is vital that we get them in our diet. Another point to make is that each vitamin does a very specific task so a shortage in one can lead to problems.
These vitamins cannot be stored in the body. Except vitamin C, the other eight vitamins are all part of the B complex family. Vitamin B complex is vital for the nervous system. Vitamin C helps in the formation of collagen which is vital for strong bones, teeth and joints. It also contains antiviral and antibacterial properties which prevent infection and boost the immune system.
A, D, E and K vitamins are fat soluble. The biggest difference to water soluble is that they do not require frequent replenishment. As they wont be discharged in urine, any excess amounts get stored in the body. Vitamin A is crucial for the immune system, vitamin D helps the body utilize calcium and phosphorus, Vitamin E helps with cholesterol and vitamin K helps prevent coronary artery disease.
A recent study by the Food Standards Agency showed that the average Brit gets their daily vitamin needs in their daily food and drink. And the key thing to remember here is that if you take more vitamins than you need, if they are water soluble, then you just wee the excess out. There are no heath benefits to taking more vitamins than you need.
Despite the research by the Food Standards Agency there are some cases where vitamin supplements may be useful. They are growing children, vegetarians, pregnant or breastfeeding women and vitamin D is an interesting vitamin as it is rare in our diet.
Growing children who don't eat a mixed varied diet can become deficient in some vitamins particularly vitamins A and C. With this in mind the Department of Heath recommend that all children aged 6 months to 5 years are given vitamin supplements containing vitamins A, C and D every day. It is also recommended that babies who are breastfed should be given a vitamin D supplement but babies who are having more than 500 ml of formula a day should not, as formula is fortified with vitamin D.
Vegetarians do need to pay particular attention to iron and vitamin B12 and supplements here could be really helpful. Vegans as well need to be mindful of calcium and again iron and vitamin B12.
The Department of Health recommends that all pregnant women take a vitamin D supplement. Do not take vitamin A supplements as this could harm your baby. The amount of vitamin D that is required is 10 micrograms a day. Vitamin D regulates the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body. The reason a supplement is often needed for this vitamin is that it is found in only a small number of foods, these include oily fish, eggs and red meat. It is also made in our bodies when we are exposed to sunlight, so in the winter months in the UK this can be difficult.