Vitamin supplements: saviour or snake oil?

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Supplementary vitamins are a popular addition to the Australian diet, with almost 25 per cent of Australian adults taking some form of vitamini. Moreover, 82 per cent of these people do so to prevent illness rather than to treat a pre-existing medical conditioni. Indeed, the vitamins and supplements industry is worth a massive $1.5 billion a year, with numerous celebrity endorsements convincing Australians of the health benefitsii. However, do vitamins really live up to the promise?

Vitamins are extremely popular in Australia, with almost 25 per cent of Australian adults taking some form of vitamin supplement.

Are vitamin supplements necessary?

Associate Professor of Deakin University's School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Tim Crowe, believes supplementary vitamins aren't as necessary as the manufacturers want you to think. He says that 'taking vitamin and mineral supplements is no substitute for a varied diet,' and that 'in the absence of a diagnosed deficiency, long-term use of vitamin and mineral supplements have little benefit'i. According to Crowe, a healthy diet provides the body with a combination of necessary vitamins, minerals and plant chemicals that work in synergy, in contrast with vitamin supplements which work in isolation.

However, there is evidence that some vitamins and supplements can be beneficial for people with specific nutritional requirements. Folic acid supplements are strongly recommended for women trying to conceive, as well as throughout pregnancy as it can reduce the risk of the baby having neural tube defects like spina bifidaiii. Calcium supplements can help those who are lactose intolerant to reduce their risk of bone-related diseases like osteoporosis due to the absence of calcium-rich dairy products in their dietsiv. Vegans, especially when pregnant, may benefit from vitamin B12 and iron supplements, which may help reduce the likelihood of anaemia and fatigueiii. Some people may also need supplements to balance out deficiencies of particular vitamins, but in this case, a doctor or accredited dietician should be consultediii,v. Medical professionals will also be able to provide helpful dietary advice tailored to your unique situationiii.

A well-balanced diet with foods of a high nutritional value can lead to a healthier lifestyle and combat diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Nevertheless, eating a well-balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables will usually provide your body with the vitamins needed to stay healthyi. You can find natural superfoods that are high in nutritional value on the shelves of any supermarket or grocery store, including legumes, yoghurt and vitamin-rich fruit and veggies such as berries, kale, avocado and spinachvi. These superfoods are packed with vitamins and minerals and incorporating these into your meals can be an effective way of improving your diet without the need to take supplements.

Before you begin taking vitamin supplements, evaluate whether or not you actually need them. Although vitamins promise huge health benefits, they can end up being an unnecessary cost - especially if you already have a healthy diet. A well-balanced diet with foods of a high nutritional value can not only provide you with all the vitamins you need, but also help to combat diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. For more information on the recommended daily intakes of vitamins, visit the National Health and Medical Research Council website.

iBurge, K 2013, 'Can you overdose on vitamin and mineral supplements?', ABC Health & Wellbeing, 3 December, viewed 17 May 2014,

iiRourke, A 2013, 'Vitamins take Australia', The Guardian, 10 June, viewed 17 May 2014,

iiiBetter Health Channel, Victorian Government 2014, Vitamins - common misconceptions, viewed 17 May 2014,

ivNYU Lagone Medical Center 2014, Lactose Intolerance, viewed 4 June 2014,

vBetter Health Channel, Victorian Government 2014, Vitamin and mineral supplements, viewed 17 May 2014,

viWright B 2010, '10 Natural Superfoods You Can Eat Every Day', Huffington Post, 9 September, viewed 22 May 2014,