Do we really need to take vitamins?

The truth behind supplements

You may be surprised to learn that a staggering 48% of adults in the UK currently take vitamins or supplements to improve their health, with 34% having previously taken them. (Gov.uk). If you don’t take vitamins or supplements at the moment, you may have some at the back of that ‘bits and bobs’ drawer that you bought a few years ago and either forgot to keep taking or simply lost interest in them.

We are currently living in a post-pandemic world in which many of us are looking for worthwhile ways in which to improve our immune health and at the same time reduce our health anxiety and enhance our overall wellbeing. There has been a significant increase in vitamin and supplement taking to do just that; improve quality of health.

A baffling array of supplements are available at every supermarket, pharmacy, and health food shop, online, and in recent years they have now become available at beauty establishments and sports shops. With so many available, and an even bigger list of benefits in circulation - do you know your Vitamin C from your Magnesium, and more importantly do you know whether you should take them? And what vitamins should you take? We are going to do a deep dive below into key differences and ideal lifestyle and food choices to help you understand if taking vitamins and supplements is the best decision for you.

The benefits of a healthy diet 

Ideally, we should receive all the vitamins and minerals we need from the food we consume. Achieving this through our diet requires the consumption of foods that contain vitamins and minerals and are also low in bad fats, sodium, starches, and sugar. For example, salmon is renowned for containing those sought-after omega-3 fatty acids, but it also contains those important B vitamins too. Other foods high in vitamins and minerals are leafy greens such as kale and fruits such as blueberries. Achieving the recommendations regarding low fat foods and even spending limited and/or changing current eating habits that are lacking or low in vitamins and minerals can prove to be a hard task to achieve on a daily basis.

The benefits of sufficient sunlight

The absorption of key vitamins can also be obtained outside of a nutrients rich diet and a main example of this is receiving vitamin D via the ultraviolet-B radiation in the sun’s rays. This offers a myriad of benefits to your health including maintaining and improving bone and skin health and increasing wellbeing. Spending limited time outdoors and/or using sunscreen can however affect the availability and absorption of key vitamins. This can prove to be tricky as it is important to use SPF to protect your skin, so it is about finding that balance of the right amount of exposure to the sun’s rays.

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Key differences between vitamins that are fat and water soluble

Understanding the key differences between those Vitamins which are fat soluble and those that are water soluble will enable you to make informed decisions around vitamin intake. A fundamental difference between those vitamins which are fat soluble and those that are water soluble is that the water-soluble vitamins which are B and C cannot be stored in the body. When ingested these vitamins will stay in the body for between 8 and 14 hours and any excess will be passed in our urine. The big take home from this is that whilst our body can absorb the other vitamins, to get what we need of Vitamins C and B we need to be consuming them on a regular, ideally on a daily basis.

The importance of fat-soluble vitamins and where to find them

Fat-soluble vitamins are A, D, E and K, and once they are consumed, they remain in the body’s fatty tissues. Therefore, they do not have to be consumed daily to achieve the Reference Nutrient Intake.

Vitamin A is an antioxidant which is important for our sight as well as our bone growth and also our muscles and connective tissues. It’s found in animal foods such as liver, whole milk and oily fish and in plants which contain beta-carotene. Consuming 15g of liver or 25g of sweet potato can provide the Reference Nutrient Intake or RNI.

Vitamin D has become more widely discussed in recent years as a result of its impact on the immune system. It is also important for supporting bone health through aiding calcium absorption and thus potentially reducing fracture risks in the elderly. This key vitamin is pretty hard to consume using food, it would take 110g of mackerel DAILY or 24 eggs/litre of milk to achieve the RNI. Sunlight absorption through the skin is the most efficient way of achieving the recommended RNI, however darker skin pigmentations make it harder to make Vitamin D and our variable weather here in the UK adds an increased risk; plus the increasing use of sunscreen can make getting the RNI quite tough. Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency can include fatigue, muscle weakness and joint aches, and severe deficiencies can lead to rickets in children and osteoporosis in adults.

Vitamin E has been less extensively researched and has fewer clear benefits, other than it being established that it is an antioxidant which can help to prevent cell damage and can reduce oxidation in the outer layers of our skin. The good news is that it’s relatively easy to achieve the RNI as an intake of 30ml of olive oil, 20g of almonds or 14g of sunflower seeds; all of which are foods rich in vitamin E.

Vitamin K is important for sufficient blood clotting and bone formation. Foods rich in vitamin K include green leafy vegetables, olive oil, chicken, butter, and egg yolks. Consumption of 15g of Kale for example would hit the required intake.

The importance of water-soluble vitamins and where to find them

Water-soluble vitamins are the B vitamins and Vitamin C. They are not stored in the body for longer than 8-14 hours and any excess quantities will be excreted in your urine.

Of all the Vitamins in our foods Vitamin C is probably the best known due to its host of vital benefits. This includes antioxidant properties, its importance for our immune system, and to enable our bodies to successfully heal from wounds. Vitamin C has beneficial effects on our ability to absorb iron (which is why many of us will recall being advised to take an iron supplement with a glass of orange juice). Vitamin C is also needed for the formation and maintenance of our collagen stores. The good news is that it’s incredibly easy to hit the RNI guidelines of 40mg a day of this powerhouse of a vitamin. A serving (around 100g) of broccoli, 1 kiwi or 1 and a half tomatoes will all deliver what is needed daily as they are foods rich in vitamin C.

A lack of Vitamin C can lead to deficiencies such as scurvy if you are not consuming enough Vitamin C over a prolonged period. It is worth remembering that the cooking and processing of fruits and vegetables will cause a dip in the Vitamin C content, although less is lost when steaming as compared to boiling. It’s worth remembering that tinned, fresh, and frozen fruit and vegetables all contribute to getting the Vitamins required for a healthy body.

B vitamins are important for maintaining good cell health, energy levels, growth of red blood cells, brain function as well as a whole host of other health benefits such as digestion and appetite. The main functions of these vitamins are to support the body to convert the food we consume into a fuel source for the body. B vitamins are found in a wide variety of foods so in theory it should be easy to consume enough in our standard diets.

Vitamin B is commonly grouped together in supplement terms to be offered as a Vitamin B ‘complex’ because there are multiple ‘B’ Vitamins out there.

What are the key B vitamins and which foods they can be found in?

B12: helps us to make red blood cells and keep our nervous systems healthy. It is found in animal products such as shellfish, liver, fish, red meat, dairy products and in some fortified products such as breakfast cereals. This could mean that vegans and vegetarians may struggle to hit the required 1.5ug/micrograms daily. A B12 deficiency can lead to health problems any symptoms such as fatigue, breathlessness, feeling faint and/or headaches.

B9: is also known as folate or folacin and the man-made supplement will be known to many of us as folic acid. It is recommended that women aiming to become pregnant supplement with folic acid because it can help to reduce the likelihood of birth defects in unborn babies. Folate is found in dark green leafy vegetables, peas, and pulses such as chickpeas as well as liver and fortified cereals.

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Do you need to supplement your diet?

The short answer is ‘it depends’ and has several caveats. The most important of all is that although the above information is correct at the point of writing, it does not constitute medical advice and any concerns relating to the above should always be referred to a Health Professional. Furthermore, it is always optimal to get all the nutrients that you need primarily by eating food, such a fruits and vegetables, so where possible you should aim for this. Knowing what the ‘right’ foods are for vitamin consumption means we can now make informed, educated choices when it comes to maintaining good level of and improving our health.

Meeting the required daily intake of vitamins, with the exception of vitamin D, through a balanced and nutrients rich diet is by no means an easy feat. But it is achievable when you are in the know of the right foods to eat as we have explored above. Eating a wide range of foods such as nuts, seeds, pulses, wholegrains, oily fish and red meat, a colourful array of fruits and vegetables, some full-fat dairy foods will provide you with those vitamins that will support your overall health, bones, skin, wellbeing and much more.

However, following a nutrients rich diet packed full of the essential vitamins is made all the harder with the popularity of the ‘Standard Americanised Diet.’ If you never eat vegetables, red meat or fish or eat a largely processed food diet you may not be getting all that you need. This means that there are large numbers of individuals who are not eating nutrient dense foods and cases of ‘scurvy’ could re-emerge as a result. If you are looking to break away from unhealthy food habits check out the healthy habits blog on the Usay Compare website.

The prevalence of spending time indoors and increased use of sunscreen when outside can also make it a challenge to get the Vitamin D that we require. If you are a shift-worker who rarely sees daylight or a teenager who seldom leaves their bedroom, it’s a definite possibility that you may not be achieving your RNI for Vitamin D! Certain medical conditions such as Crohns/Celiac Disease can mean that the absorption of vitamins can be adversely affected.

Action plan for vitamin intake 

Healthy eating advice can be bewildering and often over-complicated, so my advice is to regularly review what is on your plate or in your fridge and do your best to ‘eat the rainbow’ with a variety of different coloured food sources and choose beige food less often! (In case any of you were wondering, I don’t mean Skittles!) Regularly reviewing both your diet and time spent outdoors will enable you to assess whether your daily intake of vitamins is where it should be and if you need to make any alterations to your diet or lifestyle.

The NHS website provides a full breakdown of the vitamins and minerals that your body needs to remain healthy. Consuming the right amount of vitamins and nutrients will contribute to good health from skin to bones to your immune system as well preventing deficiencies, and importantly also enhancing your wellbeing; enabling you to live a healthy and happy life. 

 

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