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Vitamins and pills

Are you wasting money on vitamins?

If you’ve ever been overwhelmed by the sheer number of vitamins and supplements on offer at your local supermarket or pharmacy, you wouldn’t be alone.

Vitamins often come with big claims to do things like reduce stress, boost energy and vitality, improve your memory and make your fingernails and hair grow more quickly.

There are so many different products – often sold by huge companies with advertising budgets to match – that it can be difficult to determine what’s marketing spin, and what is actually necessary for optimum health.

Sorting fact from fiction

So we put the question to two experts: are vitamins really worth the investment, or are they just a big, fat waste of money?

Professor Sarah McNaughton, of Deakin’s School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, says given the wide range of supplements and doses of ingredients on offer, it’s understandable that consumers are sometimes left confused.

‘Many of the claims made on products do not stack up when you look at the scientific studies,’ Prof. McNaughton says.

She says vitamin and mineral supplements can be useful in certain situations, for example when your doctor has diagnosed a particular deficiency.

The importance of diet

‘However, vitamin and mineral supplements are generally only beneficial if your underlying diet is inadequate. For most people, eating a balanced diet  in line with the Australian Dietary Guidelines is the best way to get the right amounts of vitamins and minerals that your body needs,’ Prof. McNaughton says.

She says people often take a multivitamin or minimal supplement as an ‘insurance policy’. But ironically, these people are often the ones that need it least.

‘If you already have a good diet, then it’s probably not providing a lot of benefit. Research shows that it’s often the people who have a good diet already that are taking supplements and so they probably don’t need them, so they can be just wasting their money.’

However in some cases, supplements or vitamins are necessary, says Professor Julie Pasco, of Deakin’s School of Medicine.

‘If you’ve got a healthy, varied diet than you shouldn’t need to supplement it with anything, but if you are lacking in something, that’s where supplements can be important,’ she says.

'If you already have a good diet, then it’s probably not providing a lot of benefit. Research shows that it's often the people who have a good diet already that are taking supplements and so they probably don't need them.'

Professor McNaughton,
School of Exercise and Nutrition, Deakin University

Vitamin D deficiency

Prof. Pasco has carried out research into Vitamin D, and says this is an area where vitamin supplements can bring a much-needed boost if required.

She says maintaining the recommended level of Vitamin D is important for bone and muscle health; as Vitamin D helps absorb calcium from your diet, mineralise your skeleton and support muscles.

While Vitamin D is found in only a few foods, such as fatty fish and some fortified foods, dietary sources are usually low in Vitamin D. Many people can get the required amount of Vitamin D from short bursts of sunshine, but others may struggle, she says.

‘Some people can’t go out into the sun easily … they might have skin conditions, they might be bedbound, not able to get out in the sun. They might not like the sun or they might burn very easily.’

There are also many other situations in which a person may not get enough Vitamin D, such as COVID-19 related restrictions, those who cover up for cultural reasons or live in institutions. People who are obese are also at risk of being Vitamin D deficient.

‘So there’s all these situations where, rather than exposing your skin to the sun and causing damage, then you can take a supplement. And the supplements are quite cheap – they’re a really easy way to get your Vitamin D levels up,’ Prof. Pasco says.

Just a ‘quick fix’?

While vitamins have their place, Prof. McNaughton says they are often used as an easy solution or ‘quick fix’.

‘Taking a tablet can seem much easier than looking at other aspects of your lifestyle and making long-term change,’ she says.

Generally, eating your way to health is the better – and arguably cheaper – way to go.

After all, Prof. McNaughton says whole foods such as vegetables and fruits provide plenty of benefits beyond single nutrients.

‘[Whole foods] have a whole range of phytochemicals and other nutrients such as fibre which you may not get from the supplements and so just taking a supplement won’t really match the benefits of whole foods,’ she says.

‘And consuming a healthy meal with family and friends brings much more enjoyment than taking a tablet.’

this. featured experts
Professor Sarah McNaughton
Professor Sarah McNaughton

School of Exercise and Nutrition, Faculty of Health, Deakin University

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Professor Julie Pasco
Professor Julie Pasco

School of Medicine, Faculty of Health, Deakin University

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