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Olwen Anderson's Blog

Why there's a limit on fat soluble vitamins

Saturday, May 05, 2018
Quite some time ago, before the advent of GPS, internet communication and helicopter rescues, several blokes headed across Antarctica with the south pole as their goal. They rugged up well against the cold and took plenty of food, which was (unfortunately as it turned out) mostly piled atop just one of the dog sleds. What transpired from that odyssey became a tragic demonstration of the health problems that can develop from over-consumption of fat soluble vitamins.

The unfolding nutritional disaster became apparent later in the journey. But before we go there you need to know an important distinction in the vitamins: ‘water soluble’ and ‘fat soluble’ vitamins. The former include vitamin C and the B group. Our bodies are unable to store these important helpers in meaningful amounts and so we need to top up daily. So long as you’re eating fresh unprocessed food, it isn’t too hard to meet minimum intake levels to keep your cells ticking over, and our bodies automatically adjust their absorption depending on our body’s demands.

‘Fat soluble’ vitamins (like A D and E), however, behave differently. Unlike the ‘water soluble’ vitamins, our bodies will absorb and store fat soluble vitamins in food relentlessly. There’s no limit to the amount our bodies will take up if that vitamin is available. Not a problem if you have one meal high in vitamin A; but a big problem if you’re eating it every day. And here’s where we head back to the Antarctic expedition.

That fateful decision to pile most of the food on just one sled didn’t seem such a good idea when the sled was lost down an ice crevasse. No-one was coming to rescue them, and there was still quite some distance to cover before reaching safety. So they began to eat the dogs. Which were quite tough, really; it turned out that the easiest part of the animal to eat was the liver. 

Problem is, liver is one of the most abundant sources of vitamin A. Soon the expedition members became quite unwell, and some died. Reviewing the journey, it was deduced that the hapless expeditioners had fallen victim to an overdose of vitamin A. Since then research has uncovered what amounts of fat soluble vitamins are healthy and what are unsafe for long term use.

Vitamin A is still very useful though, and has many important roles in keeping you safe. So this isn't a warning against eating vitamin A rich foods, or taking a vitamin A supplement prescribed by your practitioner. 

You might have noticed warnings on some vitamin products about the potential for overdose. Now you know why. 

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy 'Vitamin A and D (or, Cod Liver Oil anyone?)'

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