HEALTH WATCH: Vitamins Can Be a Bitter Pill to Swallow

Article excerpt

Does the public overestimate the benefits of taking vitamin pills? New research suggests we do and that many are risking their health by overdosing on them. A report by SANDRA CHAPMAN

TO maintain their stick-thin figures many top models and celebrities eat very little and so they resort to handfuls of vitamin pills daily to compensate for their lack of food. Other people eat copious quantities of vitamin pills all the time believing they will make up for their junk food diets. Many young binge drinkers believe that taking mega doses of vitamin C will prevent the hangovers the next day. Parents with children on good diets feel they still have to supplement their diet and so feed them 'junior' versions of vitamins.

New research amongst GP's conducted by Norwich Union Healthcare reveals that 13 per cent of family doctors treated patients who had suffered harmful side effects from vitamins last year.

Nearly all the 250 doctors who took part in the research believed patients overestimated the benefits of taking vitamins with many using them as a substitute for a healthy diet and lifestyle.

Three quarters of them had seen an increase in the number of people self- medicating with vitamins over the last five years.

This summer the EU set out new rules governing vitamin and mineral supplements but the detail won't be complete until 2009.

Doctors and nutritionists would say that we don't need vitamin pills if we ate healthily.

However, large swathes of the population take extra vitamins because there is much evidence that the food we eat is nutritionally deficient due to the fact it is grown in soils which are deficient in essential minerals, or in 'chemical soups' which are just that. Two examples of foods grown in the latter are tomatoes and lettuce which we now eat all the year round.

Almost half of the doctors in the survey believed there wasn't enough information on vitamins to enable people to make informed decisions on their own. But doctors traditionally were not trained in nutrition and therefore many of them in general practice have limited knowledge themselves. It is only in recent times that doctors are being taught about vitamins and minerals and their relation to health.

Dr Doug Wright from Norwich Union Healthcare advises that people need to be aware of the potential dangers of taking too many vitamins or mixing them with certain medication. His organisation too would like better information.

So what are the alleged dangers of too much of the following vitamins:

n Vitamin A taken in large amounts during pregnancy is linked to birth defects

n Vitamin B6 taken in large amounts can affect muscle control in the arms and legs

n Vitamin C in high doses can trigger diarrhoea, flatulence, stomach pains and may cause damaged to cell DNA

n Vitamin D in excessive amounts may be harmful but lack of the vitamin was a primary cause of rickets in the past.

n Vitamin E in high doses can be detrimental to the heart

Vitamins are organic nutrients needed in minute amounts for healthy metabolism. They function closely with enzymes, controlling biochemical reactions within the cells and tissues of the body.

With the exception of vitamin D which the body manufactures after exposure to sunlight we depend on our food intake to supply most of our vitamin requirements. In theory a well balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruit, nuts, vegetable oils and vegetables should provide all the vitamins we need for good health.

Unfortunately, on top of our food being grown in poor soil which needs chemical enhancement, a significant proportion of the vitamin content of many foods is also lost or depleted through storage, preparation, cooking and freezing. …