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Vitamin Supplements: Healthy Or A Waste Of Money?

They shouldn't replace proper nutrition.

With so many advertisements shouting how important it is to take every supplement under the sun, it can be tempting to spend (a lot of) money on vitamin and mineral pills in the hope for supreme health.

However, are vitamin supplements actually healthy -- or necessary?

According to Trent Watson, accredited practising dietitian and Dietitians Association of Australia spokesperson, daily vitamin supplements can not only be unnecessary, but potentially dangerous.

"Vitamins and minerals are essential for a whole range of different processes within the body," Watson told The Huffington Post Australia. "However, the interesting thing about vitamins and minerals is they are probably only needed in small amounts and not in megadose amounts found in supplements."

In fact, large doses of antioxidants such as beta-carotene and vitamin E can cause more harm than good.

Nature provides these nutrients in the best form, quantity and combinations, essentially.

"Large scale studies have consistently shown there is little benefit of taking megadoses of supplements. There is some good evidence that taking high dose supplements to prevent or cure chronic diseases, such as heart disease or cancer, may be in fact harmful," Watson said.

These studies have shown that supplementing with high doses of beta-carotene and vitamin E may increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers, and increase risks of prostate cancer and one type of stroke, respectively.

In order to get the correct type, quantity and combination of vitamins and minerals, Watson advises to focus on a healthy diet, not supplementation.

"It's a bit of a far-fetched approach to think we're going to obtain the benefits from these isolated supplements better, or the same, as we do from food," Watson told HuffPost Australia.

Vitamin supplements don't replace whole foods.
Vitamin supplements don't replace whole foods.

"Nature hasn't made a habit of creating junk food. Whole foods provide these vitamins in the best quantities and combinations with the other nutrients within those food items -- not in isolation like supplements do.

"The levels of, say, a B group vitamin supplement -- in addition to the adequate B vitamin rich food you're already eating -- can be 15 times the requirement, which is simply creating some expensive urine and not providing any benefit."

All in all, supplements should not be seen as the primary form of nutrient intake or a quick fix for a bad diet. Like its name suggests, they should supplement what you are lacking.

"Some people would say, 'if I don't have a good diet, should I supplement?' and I say 'no'. Use your diet because that's where you're going to get the benefits from," Watson said.

"There's no evidence to suggest you're getting benefits from supplementing -- unless there's a known deficiency.

"For example, you might have an iron deficiency, and then supplementing with iron is great. We also encourage folate supplementation for women planning for pregnancy or in pregnancy to reduce the risk of neural tube defects."

Focus on eating whole foods, not supplements, to get essential nutrients.
Focus on eating whole foods, not supplements, to get essential nutrients.

Another example of when a person may need supplementation is if they have a known allergy or intolerance.

"A person with a dairy intolerance might supplement with calcium. Or having coeliac may reduce the intake of whole grain foods rich in B vitamins, so they might then supplement with B vitamins."

If you do not fall under these groups and you have a healthy diet, Watson said vitamin supplements are most likely unnecessary.

"Over millions of years we've evolved to function optimally on whole foods," Watson told HuffPost Australia.

"Someone who follows a reasonably balanced diet, which include fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads and cereals and some meat or meat alternative, is generally going to meet all of those nutrient requirements. Nature provides these nutrients in the best form, quantity and combinations, essentially."

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