Vitamin supplements - who needs to take them?

A third of adults in the UK regularly take vitamin and other nutritional supplements and spend around £385m per year on them. Nutritional supplements are readily available in pharmacies, health food shops and supermarkets. But are they really necessary?

Who needs to take vitamin supplements and which ones?

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends particular supplements for some groups of people who are at risk of vitamin deficiency.

Folic acid

A Folic acid supplement is recommended for all women thinking of having a baby and pregnant women up to week 12 of the pregnancy. Folic acid helps to prevent neural tube defects, such as spina bifida.

Vitamin D

This vitamin is recommended for all pregnant and breastfeeding women and children aged six months to five years. It is important for healthy bone and teeth formation.

Recent guidance from the government recommends adults and children should take a daily supplement containing 10 mcg (microgram) of vitamin D, particularly during autumn and winter. Vitamin D is made in the body by the action of sunlight on skin. Very little is obtained from the diet.

This advice is important for people who are not exposed to much sun, for example people who cover up their skin for cultural reasons, or people who are housebound for long periods of time.

Vitamins A, C and D

A supplement containing vitamins A, C and D is recommended for all children aged six months until four years. This is a precaution because fussy eaters may not get enough of these vitamins if they are not eating a varied diet. Vitamin A is essential for healthy eyes and vitamin C is important for normal tissue growth.

Your GP may also recommend supplements if you need them for a medical condition. For example, iron supplements to treat iron deficiency anaemia.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 supplements may be needed by vegans who do not eat animal products. Vitamin B12 is obtained from animal products. The body needs vitamin B12 to maintain healthy blood and a healthy nervous system.

Does anyone else need to take supplements?

A study by the Food Standards Agency recently showed the average Briton gets all their recommended daily allowance of every vitamin from their normal food and drink. Dietitians agree the best way to obtain the nutrients is from a varied mixed diet containing plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables, cereals, pulses, diary food (or diary alternatives like Oat Drink), fish and meat.

If you already have enough of each vitamin in your body, taking vitamin pills cannot give you a ‘boost’ or give you any additional health benefit.

Can taking vitamin supplements be dangerous?

Taking high doses of some vitamins can be toxic to the body. In particular fat soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A and D which can accumulate in the fatty tissues in the body.

During pregnancy, supplements containing vitamin A, liver and liver products should be avoided.

Some vitamins such as vitamin C are water soluble. If your body is already awash with vitamin C from your diet you will pee out what your body does not need.

Effervescent vitamin supplements

These ‘fizzy’ supplements contain up to a gram of salt per tablet which can be harmful to people who need to watch their salt intake.

Recommended intakes of vitamins

If you decide to take supplements, stick to within the Recommended Daily Allowance, unless you've had guidance from a state-registered dietician or clinical nutritionist to exceed the dose. If you've got questions about dosage levels, consult a state-registered dietician or clinical nutritionist.

For more information on recommended intakes of vitamins and other nutrients click here for PDF of Nutrition Requirements.

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