Vitamins: myths, facts, use and misuse

The belief that supranutritional doses of vitamins will improve quality of life doesn’t match what science tells us. Happy Sleepy/Flickr

When it comes to using vitamins to supplement diets, there’s a wide gap between what science says and what many consumers believe.

A recent study, for instance, established that some 52% of the Australian population takes some form of complementary medicine, with over a third of this number taking vitamin pills.

Overall, almost one in five people in Australia are taking vitamins. Many of these people take over-the-counter supplements without professional advice, although a few practitioners prescribe megavitamin (large doses) therapy.

But most are vitamins not really useful when taken as supplements to a normal diet. In fact, such supplements are potentially harmful.

Still, vitamins in all shapes, forms, combinations and doses are sold through supermarkets, health-food shops and pharmacies. So consumers should be aware of the uses, efficacies and potential toxicities of any vitamin products they purchase.

What are vitamins?

Vitamins are organic substances – or groups of related substances – found in many foods. They have specific biochemical functions and are generally not made in the body (or not in sufficient quantity for good health).

They’re essential nutrients required in very small amounts to maintain good health. The effects of vitamins are best known by their deficiency syndromes, many of which are life threatening.

All else being equal, the amount of these nutrients required for good health can be readily obtained through a reasonable diet and sufficient exposure to sunlight.

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