vitamin supplementsRecently, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition has recommended to the government that the taking of Vitamin D supplements would be beneficial to the most vulnerable groups in society - particularly young children, the over 65s and pregnant women. Thanks to the UK weather, an estimated 1 in 5 adults and 1 in 6 children have low levels of Vitamin D.

In another recent study it was found that iodine supplements taken by pregnant women could be extremely beneficial for the healthy brain development of foetuses. Studies indicate up to 67% of women do not have high enough levels of iodine; taking supplements to boost these levels could help increase children’s average IQ score by 1.22 points.

Such findings raise an interesting question: are supplements an integral part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle? Or are there better ways of getting fulfilling our vitamin and mineral requirements? After all, these nutrients are responsible for everything from the quality of our nails and hair to the health of our hearts and nervous systems.

The pros of supplements

A balanced diet should provide us with the wide array of vitamins and minerals our bodies need. But a lack of time and understanding of what getting your '5-a-day' really means has seen a growing proportion of the nation suffering from diseases relating to nutrient deficiencies. In this sense, taking multivitamin tablets or a number of different vitamin and mineral supplements can ensure that the body is equipped with everything it needs to function normally. Indeed, there have never been more products on the market in the supplement sector than there is today, proving that the added convenience is appealing to a growing number of people in society.

In recent years, pregnant women have been clinically advised to take folic acid supplements during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, because it has been proven to reduce the chance of miscarriage and help prevent numerous birth defects. The 400 microgram recommendation is over and above the 200 micrograms generally advised in an adult's diet, making the use of supplements a convenient and quick way of ensuring that pregnancy guidelines are followed.

Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers are also often advised to top up their Vitamin D intake, particularly during the winter months when getting out in the sunshine isn't possible.

Vitamin and mineral supplements are also popular with parents of children who are fussy eaters. In turning down fruit or vegetables, children may fail to achieve the necessary levels of certain nutrients - nutrients that they would be more willing to consume in pill form. Sweetened Vitamin A, C and D supplements are particularly popular among parents of children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years as a way of keeping health problems at bay.

The cons of supplements

The nutrients we get from food contains a whole host of vitamins and minerals that work together to keep us healthy. While a single supplement or even a mix of nutrients can be helpful in some respects, they should not be taken at the expense of a balanced diet containing fruits and vegetables. A varied, balanced diet containing vitamin-rich foods should therefore be the first port of call when it comes to increasing vitamin levels and promoting good health.

A common misconception amongst those purchasing supplements is that by ingesting vitamins and minerals, the individual is then free to eat anything they want over the course of the day. This simply isn't true. Even with the addition of numerous supplements, a diet of ready meals and fizzy drinks can have seriously damaging effects.

Another danger with taking supplements is the risk of ingesting too much of a particular vitamin or mineral. Taking more than the recommended daily allowance of a particular supplement is not just a waste of money but can also be harmful in some cases. A prime example of this is Vitamin A - too much of which can be damaging for pregnant women. Extensive overdosing of Vitamin - or Hypervitaminosis A - features symptoms including headaches, blurred vision, skin peeling, hair loss, vomiting and bone pain. Taking high doses of multiple vitamins at one time may also cause the different vitamins and minerals to compete with each other, reducing levels of absorption. For instance, taking large quantities of iron can reduce the amount of calcium the body is able to absorb.

The amount of any particular vitamin an individual needs can be dependent on age, health and lifestyle. Older people, those with specific medical conditions, children, nursing mums or those with particularly restrictive diets can have wide ranging requirements.

For further guidance on appropriate levels of vitamin or mineral intake, consult your GP or pharmacist.