‘Vitamania’ doco urges caution


Experts warn supplements are not risk free in this documentary that looks at the good, the bad and the ugly of vitamin and mineral supplements

A new documentary aired by SBS has explored the benefits and potential pitfalls of vitamin supplements.

“Across the world, some experts claim that taking vitamins can be lifesavers, whereas others argue that it’s just a waste of time of even dangerous. So how are we supposed to know whether to take them or not?” asks presenter Dr Derek Muller, a science communicator who has a background in physics.

In his documentary ‘Vitamania’, Dr Muller revealed several stories which showed how supplements were temporarily used to help people who were severely deficient in a vitamin or mineral, to correct the imbalance.

These deficiencies were causing blindness in one person, and scurvy in another.

However both deficiencies were caused by poor diet.

For example, one man had developed scurvy after exclusively eating white bread and American cheese for several years.

A child going blind was able to save part of his sight with vitamin A supplements – although the blindness had also been caused by a poor diet that lacked fresh fruit and vegetables.

In response to the documentary, CEO of Complementary Medicines Australia (CMA) Carl Gibson, said: “As a responsible industry, we advocate for a good nutritious diet and exercise, and supplements for when a healthy diet isn’t enough.

“The documentary shows the vital role our products make to supplement life’s journey.

“Vitamin A is essential for eye health, Vitamin D is needed for strong bones, Vitamin C supports immunity and prevents scurvy, and folic acid reduces the risk for birth defects, with many doctors recommending that any woman of childbearing age take a folic acid supplement.”

The documentary also shares concerns about over-supplementation leading to overdose or serious health conditions.

This includes the story of a baby who was supplemented with too much vitamin D and became very ill.

“Every vitamin has a toxic level,” Dr Steven Novella, neurologist from Yale University School of Medicine, said on the documentary.

“Some of them are actually not that much higher than just normal nutritional amounts.

“I see patients all the time who have vitamin B6 levels in the toxic range and it can cause nerve damage, for example.”

“We need to look at the type of supplement, we need to look at the amount of supplement, we need to look at who it’s being given to,” said Professor Walter Willett, Nutritional Epidemiologist, Harvard Chan School of Public Health.

“It does seem that there are some places where vitamin supplements can definitely provide benefit, there are a number of places where they can provide some harm, and there are a lot of places where we’re still not sure what the outcomes will be.”

“Consumers should also make sure they read the label when selecting products and seek the advice of a healthcare practitioner,” said Mr Gibson from CMA.

“Most importantly, as the documentary portrayed, only take the appropriate dosage and seek medical assistance if any case of any side effects.”

Dr Muller said that the issue with vitamins and dietary supplements is that “they’re perceived to be risk free – yet there can be complications, there can be side effects, and there can be bad products. It’s not a no-risk proposition”.

“They can be lifesavers. But what if we’re healthy, with no known deficiency?

“Should we ‘take our vitamins’? Yes—by eating good food. And if you feel like you need something extra then maybe the best thing to do is think of vitamins as if they’re medicines. That is, if you take them, take them seriously,” Dr Muller concluded.

Watch Vitamania on SBS On Demand here

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