Joan Bakewell: Please don't spoil my relationship with vitamins

Related Topics

I am one of the 12 million. I am one of those who each morning, line up a row of assorted tablets to supplement my diet. I even have one of those dinky little boxes with a compartment for each day's dose: it goes with me wherever I go, pops up on hotel breakfast tables, at railway buffets and at the homes of startled friends with whom I am spending the weekend. I explain I am trying to do myself a favour by staying fit as I get older. They can now flourish threatening headlines in my face and tell me I may be shortening my life. You just can't win.

Researchers at Copenhagen University have condensed the findings of 67 studies of some 230,000 healthy people and concluded that high doses of vitamin A supplement can increase the risk of death by 16 per cent, vitamin E by 4 per cent. Beta-carotene was linked to a 7 per cent increase in risk. That's not all: calcium in excess can build up in the liver. And there's no proof that lots of vitamin C helps ward off a cold. You just can't do right for doing wrong, can you?

It's always been assumed, by me among many others, that vitamins were the good guys. I had aunts and uncles who grew up with too few in their diet who then developed rickets that left them bow-legged for life. And whereas 'eat your greens' has always struck misery in the heart of every child, there was a time when the free distribution of cod liver oil and concentrated orange juice helped lift a generation of children from the poor diets that their parents knew.

From then on vitamins were the brave fighters against infection. Surely you couldn't have too much of a good thing? Now it appears you can.

There are certain issues that have to be dealt with. First, the five doses (sorry, portions) of fruit and vegetables per day are just not sustainable. There is only so much spinach and stewed rhubarb the body can stand.

Either we eat this stuff raw, which means cold, and forego the comfort of warm food entirely. Or we spend time making plain vegetables palatable with time-consuming recipes that will almost inevitably involve creamy sauces and butter. How much more healthy is that? Besides, many of us take lunch in canteens and cafes, pubs and even on the hoof. Five fruit and veg are not going to make it big in such surroundings. The temptations are too strong, the menus too full of mouth-watering gloop that tastes scrumptious and kills you too.

Stopping off at a coffee stall before I catch a train, I just occasionally take the option of an apple, lurking unloved in a basket alongside the pastries, sausage-rolls and pain au chocolat. I have never seen anyone else do the same. At best someone might opt for a banana, currently the trendiest gesture towards healthy living. So government agencies and health pundits are wasting their time. We've heard the message and we're not voting for it.

Then again, to each his own. We pill-poppers select the particular needs that help our individual condition. I take cod liver oil, glucosamine sulphate, folic acid and a single multivit tablet. The medical condition I am treating is that of old age, the symptoms creaking and stiffening limbs, loss of energy, and a memory that increasingly forgets names and even facts. I have no control mechanism to tell me what I would be like without my daily intake, so I reckon that I might as well give it the benefit of the doubt. What's to lose, except the cost of pills that might be having no effect at all?

On the other hand, we all know the pharmacist's shelves are stacked with little bottles and a multitude of trade labels.

We in Britain swallow £220m worth of pills a year, and there's a booming pharmacology industry out to exploit our human weakness, play on our fears and in the end disappoint our hopes. You can't live for ever. What's more, the internet is dense with offers of stuff that can work miracles. I, teasingly, am regularly targeted with Viagra offers! I know there are people with anxiety levels so high that they scour the net for other ways to fend off their fantasy nightmares by ingesting chemical compounds.

People who are neurotically hypochondriac will be easy targets for unscrupulous salesmen. I am with the Department of Health in trying to warn them of such risks. Excess in all things is bad. But until we are told of dose limits with exact and scientifically-quantified dangers then simply railing vaguely against vitamin excess is pointless. Don't they know that we in the West live in times of excess!

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own