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Pharma’s creating an epidemic around vitamin D deficiency

Come on, admit it. When you were young, you thought spinach was a fabulous dietary source of iron. Your mum and dad thought it too, which is why they tried so hard to force it down your throat when you’d much rather have had a choc-ice or a Jammie Dodger.

Eventually the truth came out. Spinach is no richer in iron than any other green vegetable. The whole myth had been the result of a misplaced decimal point in a dietician’s calculations. So it turns out Popeye could’ve flattened Bluto and wooed Olive Oyl even if he’d chosen to chomp down a can of broccoli instead.

I’m getting the feeling that another decimal point might have gone astray – this time in the normal/abnormal cut-off point for vitamin D. Not since the academics decided that anybody who had a blood test within two hours of eating a Mars bar would be labelled diabetic has a set of diagnostic goal posts moved so far, so quickly.

Let’s face it, in the 1960s and 70s we never caught so much as a fleeting glimpse of the sun thorough the clouds of industrial smog anywhere north of Hemel Hempstead. And we ate a diet based on white bread, Fray Bento’s pies and Vesta chicken curry that could reasonably have been described as ‘nutrient free’. Even so, none of my schoolmates developed rickets.

True, all our mothers would moan about being ‘tired all the time’ and suffer from aches and pains in every joint in their bodies, but that was more a cultural norm than a diagnostic cue. They were slaves to their nerves too.

So to coin the stand-up comic’s well-worn opener: ‘What is it with vitamin D?’

We’re told to dish it out to pregnant women, breastfeeding women, women who wear the burqa, kids under five, anyone over 65 and teenage coach potatoes who can’t be arsed to walk to KFC and back during the hours of daylight.

We’ve seen three Clean Air Acts go through Parliament and into law, meaning that we bask in glorious ultraviolet sunlight so often that dermatologists advise us to wear sunscreen every day. We supplement staple foods and breakfast cereals with vitamins and minerals, but despite all this millions are at risk of, well, whatever millions of people are at risk of when they don’t get enough vitamins and minerals.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not buying it. Especially at the sort of prices drug companies charge for the ultra-high once a week for three months replacement regimes they’re touting for ‘severe deficiency’. And it only takes one slip of the keyboard or mouse that issues a prescription for an unlicensed special preparation to screw up an entire month’s prescribing budget.

So leave the prescription pads alone and tell patients to check this out. We humans can manufacture vitamin D in our skin. Okay, it’s not quite as cool as being able to photosynthesise carbohydrates, but come on, it’s pretty damned good. Vitamin D might not grow on trees, but it’s the next best thing. Get out of my waiting room and into the light. Or eat some fish, or fix yourself an omelette.

Because as far as I’m concerned, vitamin D deficiency is the latest epidemic, based on little more than the shifting sands of pharma.

Dr Tony Copperfield is a GP in Essex. You can email him at and follow him on Twitter @DocCopperfield