The findings contradict previous guidance issued by Public Health England, which, as recently as July 2016, issued new advice based on the recommendations of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition. This advice encouraged people of all ages to take vitamin D supplements during the autumn and winter months to counteract the effects caused by lack of sunlight and poor diets. Some experts are now calling for this to be changed.
More than 51,000 people over 50 took part in 33 randomised, placebo-controlled trials. The data was pooled by Chinese researchers with the aim of establishing a link between taking the supplements and a lower risk of common bone fractures, including hip and spinal injuries. However, the analysis, published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), found there was none.
Dr Jia-Guo Zhao, a researcher in the department of orthopaedic surgery at Tianjin First Center Hospital in China, said that the results showed that supplements were not a substitute for leading healthier lifestyles as we get older, and that people who are not living in care or under specific medical supervision should stop taking them.
“We think that improving their lifestyle, getting enough exercise and enough sunshine – and adjusting the diet – may be more important than taking these supplements,” he told Reuters.
However, some medics have criticised the new findings and have described the report as potentially “harmful to people’s health”. Dr Robert Recker, a professor of medicine and head of the Creighton Osteoporosis Research Center in Omaha, Nebraska told the media in the US: “The paper in JAMA is complete bull… if you excuse my expression. That's going to cause a lot of harm. There are plenty of studies that have said the opposite.”
He pointed out how difficult nutritional studies are to undertake, saying: “It’s not enough to give some clinical trial participants vitamin D and other’s placebos because everyone gets different amounts of vitamin D from the sun and from their diets.”
Alongside calcium, the body uses vitamin D to maintain bone health. The recommended daily intake for most adults is 15mcg or 20mcg over the age of 70. If people take too much, they run the risk of serious side effects, and previous research has linked high doses of vitamin D to an increased risk of falls, as well as kidney stones, certain cancers and premature death.
There are natural ways to get your recommended dose of vitamin D without taking supplements. From late-March/early-April to the end of September, most people should be able to get all they need from the sun – the body creates vitamin D when directly exposed to sunlight on the skin. Therefore, regularly going outside for 10 or 15 minutes in the middle of the day during the summer months, without sunscreen, is recommended.
Oily fish such as salmon, fresh tuna, mackerel, sardines and herring are all recommended as vitamin D-rich foods and a healthy, balanced diet should always include two portions of fish each week – including one of oily fish. Egg yolks are another good source of vitamin D and are particularly useful for vegetarians who might not be getting it from other sources such as red meat and liver. A lot of breakfast cereals and also spreads are fortified with vitamin D, so it’s never a good idea to skip breakfast.
For the time being, the Department of Health recommends taking a daily supplement containing 10mcg of vitamin D over a yearly period if you are frail or housebound, live in a care home, or if you wear clothes that cover most of your skin when going outside. People with dark skin could also benefit from taking a daily supplement throughout the year.
This article was written by Fiona Gilbert: Editor
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