Vitamin and mineral supplements are rarely out of the headlines, with ever-changing arguments for their upsides and downsides. Vitamin D deficiency in the UAE is a hot topic at the moment, largely thanks to the irony of its presence in a country with year-round sunshine. But what about the other supplements sitting in your cupboard? We quizzed family medicine specialist Dr Neil Fell of Dubai London Clinic to discover whether he thinks they’re a reliable alternative to a vitamin-rich diet.
‘This is obviously important, and essential for maintaining your blood supply and tissue viability. Today, deficiency is pretty rare, because you generally get enough from a glass of orange juice. In the past ten to 15 years, people have started believing that vitamin C can help to prevent colds and flu, but there’s little evidence to say that’s the case. It has never been scientifically proven.’
The natural alternative: Drink a glass of orange juice or take a multivitamin supplement. Dr Fell notes that most multivitamins contain 100 percent of your recommended daily allowance, whereas some vitamin C supplements can contain up to 1,000 times your daily allowance, which may be harmful.
‘I used to tell people that they didn’t need to take these things – I believed that most people, if they have a normal diet, will get enough vitamins and minerals from that alone – but I’ve changed my mind recently. I’ve realised that many people’s diets are rubbish: not just here, but everywhere in the developed world. I now say: “Look, take a multivitamin because you’re not eating properly, and it’s probably won’t do you any harm.”’
The natural alternative: If you eat a well-balanced diet, including five to seven portions of fruit and vegetables a day and a sensible amount of meat and dairy, Dr Fell suggests you won’t need a supplement.
‘Calcium is really important for bone strength, but if someone develops weaker bones when they’re older, it’s almost certainly due to their diet when they were adolescents. Once people are in their fifties or sixties, calcium supplements are unlikely to have any benefit. The only time it’s been proven to help is if you’ve had a fracture, to prevent other fractures due to weak bones, or if you’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis.’
The natural alternative: If you’re still in your teens, make sure you don’t cut out dairy products such as milk and cheese. Calcium should be combined with exercise and vitamin D to really build bone density. If you’re already well into adulthood and haven’t suffered any fractures, that ship has sailed.
‘Fish oils help to lower cholesterol and provide Omega-3. There has been an increase in mental health illness over the past 50 years, and one theory for this is that our diet has changed – people are eating a lot more animal fats than fish. Omega-3 [found in fish] is good for brain development, therefore a lack may make people more susceptible to mental health illness. It has never been proven, but it makes sense.’
The natural alternative: Eat more oily fish such as mackerel and sardines. Failing that (let’s be honest, they aren’t the most popular choices), Dr Fell suggests that upping your fish intake generally will help, even by as little as one or two portions a week.
‘Vitamin B12 deficiency normally causes certain types of anaemia or nerve conditions,’ Dr Fell explains. This nutrient helps to keep the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy, and helps make DNA. Developing anaemia can make you feel tired and weak. ‘If somebody is deficient, it’s very easy to replace orally, unless the stomach is failing to absorb it, in which case you’d need B12 injections.’
The natural alternative: If your deficiency is due to poor diet, include more green vegetables and meat (Dr Fell notes that B12 deficiency is common in vegans). If the problem is caused by the stomach not absorbing the minerals, a B12 injection will be necessary.
Dr Fell’s verdict
So should you fork out for supplements? ‘Perhaps. In an ideal world, these are not a solution because you’re not getting the benefit of a good diet, which contains things such as anti-oxidants. Cancer prevention, for example, is linked to having a good diet. Also, taking a vitamin supplement won’t protect you from smoking or the long-term effects of alcohol, for example: it has to be part of a holistic approach. You can’t simply take vitamins to mask the bad things you’re doing to your body.’
To make an appointment with Dr Fell, contact Dubai London Clinic, Jumeirah Beach Road, Umm Suqeim, www.dubailondonclinic.com (800 352).
Vitamin D deficiency
The UAE is believed to have one of the highest levels of vitamin D deficiency in the world: 60 percent of men and 65 percent of women in the region are thought to be affected. A lack of the nutrient has been linked to a wide range of ailments, ranging from diabetes to dementia and cancer to cardiovascular disease. While taking supplements will help, active sunlight on the skin is needed to help the body properly absorb this vitamin. Dr Fell suggests that high temperatures keeping people indoors is a contributing factor, alongside cultural factors such as national dress, which covers the body from head to toe and prevents the sun’s rays from reaching the skin. He suggests that supplements, accompanied by five minutes with your face and arms in the sun, three times a week, will help.