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Do you take vitamin supplements thinking they are healthy?

We take food and vitamin supplements because they are good for us, but research says that not only they may not help us, but too many supplements might even harm us.   2015-05-20

Many of us have the feeling that since we don’t eat a balanced diet and since, so we think, 21st century fruit and vegetables are somehow less nutritious than their pre-mass-farming ancestors; by taking dietary supplements we are simply giving ourselves vitamins that are missing from our food, thereby ensuring our good health.

We have no way of comparing the nutritive qualities of our grain, fruit and vegetables with pre mass-farming produce, but we can compare our own conventionally grown produce with organic crops. This may arguably give us an indication of how lacking our own food is in nutrients.

Is organic healthier?

This is a controversial question. According to the well-known Mayo Clinic, reflecting accepted medical and scientific knowhow; organic is “probably not” more nutritious than conventionally grown foods. The Clinic refers to a study that examined the past 50 years’ worth of studies on the subject and found that there is no significant difference in the nutrient content. On 6 May 2014 however, the British Journal of Nutrition published a study by Newcastle University which found that organic foods are higher in antioxidants than conventional crops, and are therefore healthier. So, is organic healthier? A fair answer would be that we cannot answer this question with certainty, which brings us back to our original question; is there a nutritional need to take dietary supplements?

No one disagrees that we should get all our nutrients from the food we eat, but the point to consider is, if our grain, fruit and vegetables are not lacking in nutrients, as advised by many, is there any point in taking dietary supplements and more importantly, is the 'it might not help but it won't harm' attitude correct?

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It might not help but it might harm

According to Cancer Research UK, experts believe that 1 in 10 cancers in the UK could be prevented with healthy eating. Research shows for example, that a diet rich in fruit and vegetables may lower the risk of cancer of the throat, lung, mouth, oesophagus and even some types of lung cancer. One would think therefore that dietary supplements containing concentrated forms of nutrients, would further reduce the cancer risk. Twenty years ago, researchers amongst them Tim Byers MD, MPH from the University of Colorado Cancer Center set out to find out just that; do dietary supplements reduce the risk of cancer? In April 2015 after studying thousands of patients over ten years, they reported to the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting 2015. Tim Byers described the research which showed how over-the-counter dietary supplements could actually increase the cancer risk if taken in excess of the recommended daily allowance (RDA). The researchers couldn't explain why this happened. Byers described how in one trial, beta-keratin supplements taken in excess of the RDA increased the risk of lung cancer and heart disease by 20 per cent. Folic acid taken in excess of the RDA actually increased the number of polyps in the colon. The researchers took care to stress however, that if taken at the correct dosage, multivitamins can be good for you, although "there is no substitute for good, nutritional food."

Just eat correctly

To stress the vital effects of a healthy diet we bring fascinating research that was published in Nature Communications on 28 April 2015.

Colon cancer usually cancer begins as benign (non-cancerous) growth (medically termed as polyp) located on the wall of the bowel. Typically it is slow growing, with a time frame of up to 10 years before it begins to spread to other parts of the body.

Researchers in the US noticed that colon cancer rates are much higher in African Americans than amongst rural South Africans. Experts link the high rates with an unhealthy diet that consists of high animal protein and fat, and lower fibre consumption. Performing an imaginative two week food exchange, African Americans were fed a high-fibre, low-fat African-style diet centred on corn-based products, vegetables, fruit, and pulses and rural Africans were given a high-fat, low-fibre western-style diet, under close supervision. Its impact was immediately visible. Before the exchange started, nearly half of the Americans, and none of the South Africans, had polyps. At the end of the two weeks, the scientists saw a dramatic change in the colon cancer indicators in both population groups. The Americans had significantly reduced inflammation in the colon and in the South Africans, the inflammation, which indicates cancer risk dramatically increased.


The best way of giving our body the nutrients it requires is by eating a healthy diet, there is no shortcut and dietary supplements are definitely not the answer. Eating what is known as a typical western diet and having vitamin supplements for nutrition would be ludicrous. If you feel that your vitamin levels are somewhat lacking, taking dietary supplements may be positive but take care to limit your intake to the RDA.