'Why I'm a vitamin junkie'

Margaret Ayton pops 100 vitamin and mineral supplements every week. Like other 'vitamin junkies' she is convinced they are essential. But does she need them at all? By Marina Baker
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Margaret Ayton pops around 100 vitamin and mineral pills a week and has done so for the past 30 years. So is this retired school teacher from Norfolk a vitamin junkie? Leading epidemiologists claim she is. And she's not the only one. Every day millions of people in the UK pop inordinate numbers of supplements in the belief that these will stave of serious illness, such as heart disease and cancer, and even keep the symptoms of ageing at bay. But it seems we could be wasting our time and money.

Margaret Ayton pops around 100 vitamin and mineral pills a week and has done so for the past 30 years. So is this retired school teacher from Norfolk a vitamin junkie? Leading epidemiologists claim she is. And she's not the only one. Every day millions of people in the UK pop inordinate numbers of supplements in the belief that these will stave of serious illness, such as heart disease and cancer, and even keep the symptoms of ageing at bay. But it seems we could be wasting our time and money.

"We have not found any evidence that they [supplements] are likely to be beneficial," says Professor Malcolm Jackson, head of medicine at Liverpool University. "People think they're not getting enough vitamins from their food but vitamins are just one small component of our diet. We also need minerals, fibre, energy and fat. Our organs depend on these to function. Without them, there's little point in taking vitamin supplements."

Mrs Ayton, 58, remains unconvinced. "I couldn't sit there and plough through enough vegetables and salads to get the recommended daily allowances, so it's better to take the pills," she says. Over the years, she has varied what she takes to meet her various health needs. Right now, she consumes vitamin C, D, E, a B complex, garlic capsules, starflower, ginka biloba, magnesium, calcium, zinc, an anti-oxidant, selenium, iron, fish oil capsules and Q10 on a daily basis. These are for healthier hair, skin, bones and joints, heart, circulation, as well as supporting the production of red blood cells and the immune system.

So convinced is Mrs Ayton about their beneficial properties, that she even feeds supplements to her beloved horse and dog. "Wild horses can graze where they like and find the herbs they need. Autumn [her horse] can't," she says. "I give him a mineral-rich seaweed supplement along with linseed and garlic capsules for his coat, lungs and skin. He also gets a special cocktail in the spring because he has a hormone problem. Amber, the dog, is getting older now and has joint problems, so she gets vitamins A, D and E. Since taking them, she can jump in and out of her basket with more ease."

Vitamins are a multi-million pound industry. Last year, 45 per cent of the population rattled their way through pills worth £305m in the belief that these would stave off ageing and disease. And this figure does not include the exponential growth in sales via the Internet. But most research is focused on the effects of vitamins in food, rather than those packaged in a pill. There is no proof that supplements will stave off disease or help us live longer. And large doses of certain vitamins have only been proven to be detrimental to our health.

"There is no magic bullet in a pill," says Dr Andy Neff, senior lecturer in epidemiology at the University of Bristol. "People think they can buy into a greener lifestyle at the chemist's counter. Those who take vitamins believe they are healthier but they do other things as well, such as exercise. They tend to eat well, smoke and drink less.

"Anyone who thinks they can sit on the sofa, with a takeaway, smoking and drinking and then make up for all that with a supplement is mistaken. I certainly wouldn't bother with a multi-vitamin." He adds: "Some of these vitamins, such as beta carotene, I wouldn't touch with a barge pole." In high doses, beta carotene, a substance converted into vitamin A in the body, has been shown to cause birth defects when taken by pregnant women. "Tests also show," continues Dr Neff, "that it confers no benefits to others. If anything it can be shown to increase mortality.

"Research definitely needs to be done. I would like to see some double-blind trials carried out," he says. This would involve two identical groups of people, one given a multi-vitamin supplement, the other sugar placebos. "Over a long period, if those given the real thing felt better and lived longer, then we would know."

Dr Neff believes the vitamin industry should be forced to back up the various claims it makes for its products. "Make them jump through hoops like drug companies must," he says. "They should be highly regulated and they are not right now. Some of the marketing is outrageous."

Dr Anne Walker, a senior lecturer in nutrition at Reading University, says: "I would agree that more research is desperately needed." Dr Walker advises Boots the chemist on its own-label vitamins, which are the brand leader and worth a whopping 35 per cent of the market. She states: "Boots certainly don't fund my research. There's no money in it. You can't patent vitamin pills like you can drugs, so no one wants to invest only to have another company reap the rewards. The Government doesn't fund studies either."

Dr Walker also agrees that the marketing leaves a lot to be desired. "It can be misleading and it's also naff," she says. "Often the amounts of vitamins contained in pills aren't worth taking. We need better self-regulation here. I have just written a letter to the House of Lords confirming that there is a case to answer for a self regulatory body. We do need one.

"Having said this, we have an amazing track record with regards to safety. If these tablets were dangerous, I think it would be obvious by now because so many people are taking them. If they don't work, then the worst thing is that people are spending money on them. But the important thing is that they don't do harm."

Dr Walker suggests that Mrs Ayton's intake "needs rationalising" but she adds: "I do believe vitamins and minerals can be helpful. People don't follow a healthy diet. They tend to eat refined foods which lack vital trace elements. They may not actually have a deficiency - people don't tend to get scurvy from lack of vitamin C, for example. But they don't get enough for optimum health. Most people certainly don't eat the required five portions of fruit and vegetables every day. Supplements may help make up the shortfall."

So there we have it. Those who study diseases, such as Professor Jackson and Dr Neff believe diet is the way forward for a healthier nation, while Dr Walker, a nutritionist (who advises the vitamin brand leader), believes a pill is better than nothing. Common sense should tell us that it must be better to opt for dietary improvements over chemical substitutes. "Variety is the key," says Wynnie Chan of the British Nutrition Foundation. Instead of popping a pill to make up the shortfall we should eat from the four main food groups - fruit and vegetables; bread cereal and potatoes; meat and fish and pulses; plus milk and other dairy produce.

Variety does not mean a korma one day and rogan josh the next. "Try carrots, peppers and broccoli, not just the usual cucumber, lettuce and tomato. That way you're sure to get all the various nutrients you need," adds Wynnie Chan.

At this time of year, we begin ingesting vitamin C by the bucket to prevent colds, but even this annual rite has never been proven to work. "It may make the cold pass quicker. It's the same with zinc," says Ms Chan, who believes supplements are a waste of money for all but the most vulnerable groups. "Some studies show it may aid the immune system but there's no rigorous scientific evidence. Yet if people want to believe these things work, they will."

A Boots spokesman said: "We would always advise people to eat a healthy balanced diet. If you don't eat healthily all the time a multi-vitamin is a good all rounder. People don't know what they are lacking vitamin-wise."

So, will Mrs Ayton rethink her 100-tablet-a-week habit? Well, actually, no. "I believe the vitamins I take prevent diseases", she states. "I wouldn't take them otherwise."

SO, WHO SHOULD TAKE VITAMINS?

Vegetarians: could benefit from a B12 supplement, which is important for creating red blood cells, memory and growth. A deficiency leads to lack of energy and unhealthy hair. B12 is also found in meat, milk, eggs, fish and cheese. Zinc (also found in red meat, seafood, egg yolks and yeast) may also be required, to maintain blood sugar levels.

Women planning to conceive: should take 400 micrograms of folic acid for three months prior to conception and then for three more months into the pregnancy. Folic acid is known to help reduce the risk of spina bifida in the unborn child.

Those with coronary heart disease: should eat canned fish (with bones) twice a week or take fish oil capsules. This can help circulation and is important for the brain, nervous system, skin and hormone levels.

The house-bound elderly: could benefit from vitamin D, which most of us obtain from sunlight. This is also found in milk, eggs and liver. Vitamin D is important for the immune system and keeps bones and teeth strong.

Under fives: faddy eaters may need vitamins A (for healthy skin), C (for iron absorption, skin and bones) and D (for stronger bones and teeth).

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