Modern Mythology

Modern Mythology: Getting Your Daily Intake

A vitamin is an organic compound that can be found in a range of foods. They have specific biochemical functions within our bodies, and we are not able to synthesise them in large enough quantities, so they must be obtained from diet. They are essential nutrients that are required in very small amounts to maintain good health.

A variety of vitamin supplements are sold over the counter in supermarkets, health shops and pharmacies, but it can be a tricky thing knowing whether you really need to take them or not. For the most part, the amount of these nutrients you need is easily obtained through a reasonable diet and sufficient exposure to sunlight. However, it is usually thought that taking vitamin supplements is a good thing, and if a little bit is good, a lot must be even better. So lots of people take lots of vitamins, with the general line of reasoning being that they are ‘natural’ and can thus do no harm. Hmm, naturalistic fallacy, anyone?

Lets take Vitamin A to begin with. There has been some evidence to suggest that Vitamin A supplementation has had beneficial effects in women living in Nepal and Indonesia, but other studies also show a risk of toxicity in children, increased risk of hip fracture and birth defects, as well as interfering with the beneficial actions of Vitamin D.

One popular vitamin that is often taken in ‘megadoses’, is Vitamin C. This was promoted by Nobel prize winner Linus Pauling. However this belief that taking lots of vitamin C to help prevent colds and flu has certainly turned out to be incorrect. However, vitamin C does have a range of benefits, such as a role in controlling infections, a powerful antioxidant that can neutralize harmful free radicals, and it helps make collagen, a tissue needed for healthy bones, teeth, gums, and blood vessels. You (probably) won’t need supplements to get your daily intake of this, though, just eat plenty of fresh fruits (especially citrus) and vegies. Although it doesn’t seem like megadoses will do you much harm, you’ll just end up with some very expensive urine!

Unfortunately, it does seem like overall there can be some negative effects of taking megadoses of vitamins. A recent study published indicates that taking beta carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E may increase mortality.

When it comes to vitamins it can be really, really hard to get a clear picture. The sorts of studies that are needed to be performed often have to be done with large groups of people over several years and cannot be completely controlled and randomised. At the end of the day, as long as you eat a well-balanced diet and spend some time in the sun once in a while, you are very unlikely to end up with a vitamin deficiency.

Sources: The Conversation (and again), Wikipedia, The Nutrition Source.

Featured Image Credit: Google Images

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Lauren is a Maths and Physics student from somewhere in the southern hemisphere. She has an affinity for reality, and you can find her on twitter @lolrj, or Google+.


  1. November 16, 2011 at 8:25 pm —

    I recently started a new diet (weight watchers) and I went to see my doctor and mentioned it in passing. She then started to list off all these vitamins I should buy to make sure that I was getting enough of everything. It is really difficult to know what to take and what not to take when even my health care professional is pushing almost all of them.

    I ended up getting B2 and Iron… The dr. actually wrote a prescription for the B2 so it was covered under Ontario health care.

    • November 18, 2011 at 4:27 am —

      Doctors are funny!

      Iron is a good idea, I don’t know how I’d survive without it. It makes such a difference to my energy levels. I’m not vegetarian, but I seem to really struggle with keeping my iron levels up.

  2. December 16, 2011 at 1:00 am —

    Which brings me to the question I have tried to ask vitamin skeptics: If I am *not* eating right and have no intention of starting, are supplements still a bad idea? If they don’t go overboard–no megadoses–what is the harm in taking them?

    • December 18, 2011 at 4:46 am —

      Sorry for taking so long to get back to your comment.

      I’m not sure!

      This is the only article I found that could be of use, however reading through it some of their conclusions seem very dubious.

      Everything else I can find seems to just give the advice to eat better, which is obviously not what you are after.

      I don’t imagine there is much harm, although epidemiological studies can be hard to understand from a non-expert point of view. Sorry for not being very helpful.

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