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Are vitamin supplements really a waste of money?

US research concluded that vitamin supplements are often taken unnecessarily.

US research concluded that vitamin supplements are often taken unnecessarily.

Vitamin supplements are often taken unnecessarily as a balanced diet does away with the need to take them, according to family doctor Anthony Azzopardi, who cautioned that some “concoctions” could actually be harmful.

Given that Maltese “usually” eat well, he agreed with the outcome of a recent study published in the US which found that vitamin supplements nearly always had no health benefits, making them a waste of money.

The research was carried out by academics from the University of Warwick and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

“A good well-balanced diet with meat, vegetables and fruit provides all the nutrients and micronutrients needed – with one proviso, that the body can absorb all these normally,” said Dr Azzopardi, who is president of the Association of Private Family Doctors.

I strongly believe I have to be the first to be responsible for my own health, and must therefore retain the right to choose

But Mary Vella, who has been taking vitamins all her life, feels that today’s food – that comes with pesticides, chemicals and medicine which could have adverse side-effects – needs to be supplemented with vitamins.

“Personally, I believe in natural vitamins and always use them in my family. They helped me a lot when bringing up our children, keeping them off unnecessary medicinal drugs,” she said.

Ms Vella always made sure to continually inform herself by reading books by renowned nutritionists and doctors and was always careful which vitamin brands she chose.

“I found them useful and sometimes very beneficial. I don’t always take the same ones, but balance intake according to the needs of the moment. I strongly believe I have to be the first to be responsible for my own health, and must therefore retain the right to choose,” she said.

Hearing about research that discredited vitamins did not change her mind as she believes that study findings can be interpreted to suit interested parties – such as pharmaceutical companies.

The research in question pointed out that vitamin supplements were generally unnecessary.

While agreeing with this, Dr Azzopardi said there were instances when patients needed them. For example, calcium supplements were necessary for someone prone to osteoporosis and iron for those with heavy blood loss.

Speaking from the general experience of family doctors, Dr Azzopardi, also warned that vitamin supplements could be harmful too.

“We see concoctions containing unknown and exotic plant or seaweed extracts from dubious sources, frequently purchased via the internet. This means even the doctor has no idea of the benefit or harming effect – and this is their selling point.

“The gullible consumer believes the hype but there is no way he can confirm whether they really work. So as the research says, they are taken for any condition and even prevention,” he said.

As things stand today Maltese law does not restrict the sale of food supplements but it states that the person selling them must be qualified to adequately advise consumers on their use. To address this, government last month published a White Paper on food supplements for consultation.

Dr Azzopardi went on to add that it was understandable how people with chronic conditions sought alternative remedies. However, he said, the cure should not be worse than the disease.

Public health nutritionist Claire Copperstone agreed with this point adding that the knowledge of the biochemistry of vitamins and minerals was still evolving.

“Today we recognise that over-supplementation – of not only fat soluble (vitamins A, D, E and K), but even water soluble vitamins (vitamins B and C) – could have adverse effects,” she said, adding it was important to discuss requirements with a doctor or pharmacist and keep to the recommended dosage.

In the case of a poorly-balanced diet or a diet which did not include the consumption of all the food groups, deficiency from a particular vitamin or mineral was possible and supplementation was advised.

“But self-medication should never be recommended and supplementation should be encouraged only after consultation with the appropriate healthcare professional,” she said.

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