Walk down any supplement aisle and it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Before your eyes stand rows of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, extracts, herbs, you name it, each one promising to prevent diseases and ailments such as cancer, heart disease, constipation, rashes, irritability and cataracts. With so many claims and so many options, it’s hard to know what you should take and what you should steer clear of. We’re here to help.
More than half of all Americans take some sort of dietary supplement. This number has been on the rise in recent decades as more people attempt to supplement their less-than-perfect diets. And marketers are taking note, adding vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and all of the “en vogue” dietary supplements of the day into everything from cookies and cakes to dips, soups and sauces. And if every claim were true, it would be easy to simply stock up on pills to prevent any number of diseases.
However, new research is touting that vitamins and other supplements may not be all they’re cracked up to be. Although some of the information floating around cyberspace claims this or that supplement to be the end-all solution to your dietary and health woes, you may find another page pointing out the dangers and side effects associated with said “wonder pill.”
“In my practice, I see so many patients who read something on the Internet and then proceed to self-medicate,” says Gordonoff Nelson, D.O., of Family Care Specialists in Ocala. He specifically notes that just because a pill is available over the counter doesn’t mean it’s harmless or even beneficial.
Pills For Prevention?
Eighty-four percent of dietary supplement users believe their supplement choices are helping them avoid future illnesses. However, recent studies suggest otherwise.
Multivitamins are among the top supplements sold in the United States. It should come as no surprise that many Americans consume a less-than-ideal diet. So the use of multivitamins is often seen by many as a way to compromise for the lack of nutritious foods they’ve been avoiding.
Not so fast says Dr. Nelson.
“People so often try to get their nutrition from a pill because they avoid the real foods that contain these nutrients,” he says. “The most up-to-date research shows that multivitamins are not recommended as a replacement for a proper diet, so if you think you can eat poorly and take a pill and be OK you’re wrong,” he says, noting that there simply is no replacement for a proper diet.
And, if you’re looking for a safeguard against more serious and potentially fatal conditions, some of the latest research points out that the vitamin aisle is not the best place to start.
Although it’s true healthy diets are generally associated with less prevalence of disease, a pill just isn’t going to safeguard you. Recently, major studies took a look at multivitamin users and the prevalence of cancer, heart disease and stroke. The Physicians’ Health Study II followed more than 14,000 individuals for 11 years. Half of the subjects took a placebo, while the other half took a daily multivitamin. Results indicated that although the use of vitamins didn’t increase the risk of heart disease or stroke, it didn’t decrease the prevalence much either.
Similarly, the Women’s Health Initiative Study and the Multi-Ethnic Cohort Study found multivitamin users were at no greater reduced risk of developing cancer than non-users.
“The research shows that pills won’t protect you from cancer. If you want to lessen your chance, diet and exercise come first,” says Dr. Nelson. He notes that although no one is 100 percent protected from developing cancer, proper diet and exercise are as close as we can get to ensuring vibrant health.
“Diet trumps all; eat right and exercise and, in most cases, you will be healthy,” he says, but he does point out that this isn’t the case for everyone and, in some cases, vitamin use is not only beneficial, it’s necessary.
When Vitamins Are Vital
So if we eat right and exercise we don’t need vitamins, right? Not necessarily.
“In most cases in our country, people don’t need to supplement, but there are plenty of people who do,” says Dr. Nelson. People who are very sick, very old or who are malnourished (though this isn’t common in our country, it does still occur) may need supplementation, though the keyword is “may.” And determining which supplements to take does not necessarily have a black-and-white answer.
“Often people talk to their friend or see something on TV and they run out and buy it,” says Dr. Nelson. He says this type of self-medication is extremely common and can have adverse effects.
“Just because something is good for your friend doesn’t mean it’s good for you,” he says. Dr. Nelson points out that the best way to determine which, if any, supplements you need is to talk to your doctor about which symptoms you are experiencing. Simple blood work can establish deficiencies in a specific nutrient, and you may not require a full multivitamin to satisfy your needs. In fact, in some cases, incorporating multiple vitamins can have adverse affects.
A 2011 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association linked high doses of vitamin E with an increased risk of prostate cancer in men. Excess calcium and vitamin D can lead to kidney stones and too much folic acid can mask a B12 deficiency, which is common in older individuals and strict vegans and vegetarians.
How much is too much? That depends on the individual.
“You can’t just take anything. Every person is different and requires different amounts of nutrients depending on their situation,” says Dr. Nelson. He notes that people usually reach these “high doses” when they take specific supplements, like added vitamin A or E, on top of their multivitamin. He says our best bet for acquiring adequate amounts of the nutrients we need is through a balanced diet.
What About All Those Extras?
So multivitamins may not be necessary for most individuals. What about those special extras like herbs and antioxidants? The antioxidant market is a $500 million industry, which is why you’ll find them added to almost everything on supermarket shelves these days. But what are they, and is a beverage like soda really a good source for them?
We are exposed to and create millions of free radicals daily. Antioxidants have the ability to give electrons to these free radicals, rendering them inactive and unable to cause damage to our bodies.
But before you pay extra for that “antioxidant-rich” juice, you may want to do some research. Try though they may, researchers have found no evidence that extracted antioxidants provide any sort of protection against heart disease, cancer or various other diseases. In fact, some studies have shown that supplementing with antioxidants increased the prevalence of lung cancer in smokers, and one study found a higher rate of heart failure among vitamin E takers who were previously diagnosed with heart disease than those who didn’t supplement.
“Again, you just can’t take something because you bought it in a health food store,” says Dr. Nelson. He says that all too often people are looking for the shortcut. They don’t want to eat the fruits and vegetables; they’d rather pop the pill. But research is finding that extracts just don’t work as well as fresh produce.
The use of herbs is another gray area when it comes to supplementation, as many tout herbal medicine as an effective treatment for, or at least protection against, various ailments.
“Again, everyone is unique. If a patient is healthy and has been taking an herb for years without any side effects, then of course I would recommend they keep taking it. But before a patient takes anything new, they need to talk to their doctor, as there can be interactions or side effects that can be dangerous,” says Dr. Nelson.
The Supplement Sum-Up
Supplementation isn’t necessarily frowned upon, but you don’t need to fill up your shopping cart with pills if you want to be healthy either. Contrary to what you may read on the Internet or see on TV, it’s impossible to know if you will benefit from a specific supplement unless you speak to your doctor. Dr. Nelson’s final piece of advice? “You can’t substitute pills for proper nutrition.” Talk to your doctor about any symptoms you have before you self-prescribe. They may just send you to the produce aisle rather than the vitamin store.