Vitamins masterclass: the 10 golden rules
Most of us have some vitamin supplements lurking in the cupboard, but how much do you really know about why you may need them? Dietician Dr Carrie Ruxton has these simple guidelines to consider:
1 Form doesn’t matter
Don’t worry about whether a vitamin comes in a hard tablet, gummy chew, or a spray – there’s very little evidence to show any one format is ‘better’ than another. Just choose the type you feel most comfortable with.
2 You should take some vitamins with food
Fat-soluble vitamins, such as A, D, E, and K, are best taken at the same time as food that contains fat, as this improves absorption. In fact, US researchers discovered taking vitamin D with your evening meal, which may contain the most fat, boosted vitamin D levels by 50 per cent! For other supplements, follow the instructions on the label.
3 Food combining tips
Dietary fibre, such as wholegrains and beans, can stop minerals being absorbed, so plan your supplements around meals. But some foods do the opposite. For example, iron from plants is more easily absorbed alongside vitamin C, so pour a glass of orange juice with a spinach salad.
4 Check you’re not taking too much
You can’t overdose on most vitamins and minerals, as any excess is flushed out of the body. But do watch out for vitamin A – a fat-soluble vitamin that’s stored in the body. Taking too much over a long period could lead to headaches and nausea, or even osteoporosis and skin problems. So, if you take a daily multivitamin, check you’re not consuming other products (such as cod liver oil) which also contain vitamin A.
5 It’s worth topping up on vitamin D
Some vitamins are essential, such as vitamin D, which is critically low across the UK population, particularly in winter and spring. Our bodies produce vitamin D by converting sunlight on our skin, but the British climate means many of us are deficient. I recommend at least 10 micrograms of vitamin D every day – the same amount suggested by a government review into low vitamin D levels.
6 How often you need to take them varies
Most multivitamins and minerals can be taken just once a day, but something like cold-busting echinacea should be taken two to three times a day to spread out the effect. There’s no evidence to show whether taking vitamins in the morning or at night is more effective, but try to take them at the same time each day to get into a regular routine.
7 Know your daily dose
The recommended daily amount (RDA) for vitamins has now been replaced by nutrient reference values (NRV), but they are exactly the same amounts. NRVs are set by the EU to meet the health needs of most people, but some groups will need larger amounts of nutrients. For example, 400 micrograms of folic acid is recommended for pregnant women to prevent birth defects such as spina bifida, while the general population has an NRV of 200 micrograms.
8 They can be a good insurance policy
The biggest argument against taking vitamins is we should get everything we need from our food. But if you have an erratic diet, eat a lot of processed food, or worry about declining nutrient levels – studies have found falling mineral levels in our soil have led to lower vitamin levels in our fruit and veg – a daily multivitamin and mineral is a good insurance. But a supplement is only meant to bridge the gap between the nutrients we get from our food and what we need, not replace food all together.
9 Check if you’re in a group with a higher deficiency risk
Women and girls need extra iron and iodine, younger children need zinc and fish oils, and teenagers need a range of minerals as they’re often not getting enough from their diets.
Elderly people need more B vitamins, calcium and magnesium as they absorb fewer nutrients from their food, a fish oil to help lower the risk of cognitive impairment, and extra vitamin D as they may not get outside that often.
If you’re vegetarian or vegan, the Vegan Society recommends taking B vitamins, vitamin D, iodine and selenium (B vitamins are mainly found in animal sources).
And if you’re pregnant, or planning to be, you need folic acid, vitamin D, and a pregnancy-specific fish oil (see point 7), as there is evidence to show marine omega-3 fats are vital for a baby’s brain and eye development.
10 Don’t buy from just anywhere
There is no ‘kitemark’ for vitamins, but all those sold in Europe, either in shops or on websites belonging to European companies, must meet tough safety and quality standards. Avoid buying supplements over the internet from countries outside Europe, as they cannot be guaranteed. At best, you’ll lose money on a fake website, but at worst, they could be harmful to your health.