Food supplement: How useful are vitamin pills?

Are multivitamin tablets, herbal blood or magnesium capsules part of your everyday life? Or do you always arm yourself against the common cold with an extra portion of vitamin C from a can? You wouldn’t be the only one.

About one third of all Germans regularly take vitamin pills or other dietary supplements. Their motto: Vitamins are healthy after all – why not give your diet a little help? Our expert will explain whether vitamin preparations are really useful and when they can even be harmful.

Why do so many people take vitamins?

By now everyone knows that vitamins are extremely important for health. A balanced diet with many vitamins and trace elements is the basis for a healthy life. But in stressful everyday life there is often not enough time to always cook fresh food, and in the evening on the sofa, snacks simply taste much better than an apple.

Vitamin preparations seem to be the ideal way to do something good for your health without much effort. They are available in the most diverse forms: as effervescent tablets, dragées or as juice. They often taste delicious and are also inexpensive. So many people take them in the drugstore or supermarket when the packages with the food supplements are offered there.

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Are vitamin preparations as good as healthy food?

The most important thing first of all: “Food supplements cannot compensate for a one-sided diet,” stresses nutritional scientist Josephine Lauscher from the Vivantes Centre for Nutritional Medicine in Berlin. A tablet is therefore never a substitute for a healthy lifestyle. Conversely, a nutritionally balanced diet provides you with all the vitamins you need, often in unusual places. “Even shrink-wrapped bread contains vitamin C because it makes it more durable,” says Lauscher.

In addition, the vitamins in food are often much more effective than in a tablet. This is because the body has more time to process all the nutrients because you nibble on a piece of fruit longer than it takes to swallow a pill. In this way, all the vitamins can be metabolized bit by bit.

If the body receives too many nutrients at once, it cannot absorb them all and excretes much of them. Also, you can hardly overdose on vitamins with food because you could hardly eat as much as you need in such a short time. With tablets, however, this would be possible.

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Food supplements cannot compensate for poor nutrition. © MIA Studio / Shutterstock.com

Are vitamin preparations useful for healthy people?

A dietary supplement is neither necessary nor advisable for most people. “Germany is not a vitamin deficiency area,” explains the nutritionist. People who do not have a disease and who eat a varied and balanced diet provide their bodies with enough nutrients.

Anyone who takes vitamin supplements in addition to this may not even be doing their health any good. “Vitamin preparations are not recommended for healthy people,” says Lauscher. Because even if you take too few vitamins for a certain period of time, the body has many mechanisms to compensate for this. “For many nutrients we have large stores and some processes can be compensated.”

Even if you do a lot of sport or want to lose weight, you don’t have to worry about your vitamin balance as long as you still eat a balanced diet. This means that if you exercise a lot, you can and should eat more. When choosing a calorie-reduced diet, it is best to stay away from one-sided models such as the cabbage soup diet. Then you will most likely not have a deficiency of any nutrient.

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Who should take food supplements?

So even though vitamin supplements are basically not necessary, there are situations and predispositions where it is important that you pay more attention to your intake of nutrients. Certain risk factors can cause you to take too few vitamins. For these 4 factors, Lauscher recommends that you consult with a doctor to see if a dietary supplement might be appropriate for you:

  • You are vegetarian or vegan
    For example, if you avoid animal products altogether, you will get too little vitamin B12. You would have to take this in addition. “Vegetarians should also have their iron levels checked regularly by a doctor,” recommends Lauscher.
  • You are pregnant or about to be
    “At the latest 4 weeks before the desired conception, women should start taking folic acid,” advises Lauscher. This prevents malformations and miscarriages. You should be careful with vitamin A. An overdose of this can harm the baby during pregnancy. Foods with a lot of vitamin A, such as liver, should therefore be eaten with caution.
  • You have a metabolic disorder
    For example, if you have problems with your thyroid gland, your gastrointestinal tract or even with blood formation, you should have your blood tested regularly for a deficiency. This can cause the absorption or need for certain nutrients to become unbalanced. Diseases such as cancer can also increase the need for vitamins and trace elements, so it can be helpful to take them in addition. However, to avoid interaction with chemotherapy or other medicines, you should always check with your doctor about which vitamin supplements you should take.
  • You’re dark in complexion, but you live in northern latitudes
    When the skin is darker, the body needs more sunlight to synthesize vitamin D. In northern countries, however, the sun is weaker and, especially in winter, it shines less than in the south. This means that people with darker skin can develop a vitamin D deficiency more quickly.

Do you fulfil one or more of these factors or do you feel generally tired or sickly? Then go to your doctor with this suspicion and have your blood tested. This way you can rule out that there is no other disease behind the deficiency symptoms and you can also have the dietary supplement adapted to your condition.

This tells your blood count about your health Instead of an effervescent tablet, drink a smoothie made of fresh ingredients. © puhhha / Shutterstock.com

Is an overdose of vitamins harmful?

If you want to supplement your diet, you should never just go out and buy any vitamin pills on your own, but always consult your family doctor first! There you can find out whether there really is a deficiency.

Because if you take too much of a vitamin, you risk overdosing. You cannot overdose from your diet alone. Eavesdropper explains what happens if you take too much of a particular nutrient:

  • With vitamin C: Since the vitamin is water-soluble, most of the excess is excreted by the body. However, if you permanently take too much ascorbic acid, you risk diarrhoea or even kidney stones. In addition: Although vitamin C is known as a scavenger of radicals, if there is more of it in the body than it can use, this effect is reversed: “The unprocessed substances can then even damage the cells instead of protecting them,” says nutritionist Josephine Lauscher.
  • With vitamin B6: B vitamins are also water-soluble, so an overdose is rather rare. “But anyone who takes far too much of it into their body over a long period of time risks nerve damage and skin diseases,” explains Lauscher. Similar to vitamin C, the excess of the antioxidant vitamin B6 can cause damage instead of catching oxygen radicals.
  • With vitamin D: In contrast to vitamin C, vitamin D is fat-soluble, so it is not simply excreted. If you take this vitamin in addition to your normal intake, even though you have no deficiency, the calcium level in your blood will also increase. This in turn can flocculate in the kidneys and calcify them. This means that the organ can no longer function properly.
  • For iron or zinc preparations: Iron and other trace elements influence each other in their absorption in the body. If there is an excess of one nutrient, it can inhibit the absorption of another. You should never take iron just like that: “There are people whose iron metabolism is disturbed. If they add iron, it accumulates and can even become toxic,” warns Lauscher.

So you get enough vitamin D even in winter

Now take a look at the pack of your vitamin pills: Are you allowed to take vitamin C or other trace elements at all after taking the pill, or does the pill already cover 100%? If you then eat anything, you will quickly exceed the recommended intake and risk an overdose.

“The intake recommendation on the packaging indicates which quantity is not harmful,” emphasizes Lauscher. This means that, provided you are healthy, the quantity information does not show how much the product will benefit you, but only how long it will most likely not harm you.

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What is the difference between a vitamin product and a medicine?

There is a dangerous psychological effect with food supplements: Often they are visually indistinguishable from pharmaceuticals. The packaging looks similar, the pills are even sometimes stuck in the typical aluminium blisters and you take them in a similar way to a medicine.

“That’s why many people think that they can trust vitamin preparations just as much as they trust drugs,” explains Lauscher. However, they do not fall under the category of drugs, but under food, which has very decisive consequences for the products. These are the most important ones:

  1. The composition of the preparations may vary Before a drug can be sold, it must be thoroughly tested. This is different with dietary supplements. They are not tested until they are already on the market, and only on a random basis. This means that the effervescent tablet that you put in your glass of water in the morning may never have been tested to make sure that it really does contain exactly the vitamins that are listed on the packaging.

    In addition, the composition can vary greatly from pill to pill. “In vitamin preparations, the active ingredient content may vary by up to 50 percent of the stated amount; for drugs, the limit is 5 percent,” warns Lauscher. It makes no difference whether you buy the pills from dm, Aldi or the pharmacy. The quality is comparable everywhere.

  2. The advertisement does not necessarily have to be right
    The effectiveness is also not tested.

    “Advertising for vitamin preparations makes people believe that there is a deficiency which might not even be present in healthy people,” explains the nutritionist. “Then they promise to remedy this deficiency.” During the cold season, for example, you should take an extra portion of vitamin C, they say, to feel fitter. However, studies on the effectiveness of vitamin pills often cannot clearly prove whether and how much the preparations really help.

  3. Food supplements do not cure disease
    “With vitamin preparations, you take something that by law must not have a pharmacological effect,” emphasizes Lauscher. This means that the preparations must neither cure nor prevent a disease, otherwise they would fall into the category of drugs.
  4. Interactions are not specified
    Even if the vitamin pills are “only” food, they can influence the effect of drugs.

    For example: “The effect of chemotherapy can be weakened or strengthened if the body suddenly has an excess of vitamins from food supplements,” warns Lauscher. If you smoke, you should also be careful: In one study, smokers were administered beta-carotene, which suddenly led to an outbreak of lung cancer, and the study had to be stopped.

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Don’t let the advertising fool you. If you are healthy and eat a sensible diet, you are unlikely to have a deficiency, and vitamin supplements are useless in your case. If you still suspect that your body is lacking something, seek medical advice first.