Dietary supplements are popular, with half of all Americans, and 70% of older Americans, taking at least a multivitamin daily.
Is it money well spent? That depends on who you ask. When it comes to supplements, there is no end to the controversy. Some experts are “all in” while others scoff at the notion.
At least four items complicate the issue. First, supplements encompass a vast array of options, from the standard multivitamin to exotic concoctions. Second, very little high-quality, large-scale research has been conducted on supplements. Third, how good is quality control of production? Are you getting what you paid for? And fourth, some supplements come from natural sources while others are made in a laboratory, and although they have the same chemical structure, are the effects the same?
The cons of taking dietary supplements
It’s fair to say that many medical experts are skeptical and probably would rather you didn’t take supplements. A major reason is the lack of scientific research evidence that demonstrates a positive effect. At present, a few large-scale medical research studies have found that taking a multivitamin does not reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, or mental decline. Unfortunately, this limited research has been applied to all supplements, in general, discrediting the entire group.
Why is there so little research evidence? Supplements are naturally occurring substances such as vitamins, minerals, herbs, and botanicals. A botanical is a plant used for medicinal properties, and examples are palmetto, echinacea, St. John’s wort, ginkgo, etc.
You may like:Does vitamin C really help prevent, or cure, the common cold? Here are 3 things to know
Since supplements are natural, research findings cannot be patented. This means if I spent millions of dollars on a large-scale sophisticated research project to determine the effects of a given vitamin or mineral, and found very positive effects, the lack of a patent would allow anyone to grab my results, tout them to the public, and cash in on my investment. Unfortunately, and erroneously, the lack of scientific research evidence is often misinterpreted as a negative, a reason to avoid supplements.
Is this ever going to change? Probably not. Years ago, the Food and Drug Administration stepped up and decided it was time to regulate supplements to protect consumers. For example, without FDA oversight, a label may claim that each pill in the bottle contains 500 mg of Vitamin C. However, when samples of various brands were tested, there was a huge range of values in each pill, and some contained no Vitamin C at all.
When the FDA attempted to move forward with oversight, there was a huge backlash. Why? Folks believed if the FDA got involved and seized control of the situation, eventually, you might need a doctor’s prescription to get a vitamin pill, and no one wanted that.
In an effort to police the quality of supplements, some nonprofit organizations have stepped up and are very helpful. For example, the United States Pharmacopeial Convention examines the strength and quality of dietary supplements and verifies contents. Large reputable supplement companies with their reputations at stake depend on the USP stamp of approval. So, it’s a good idea when purchasing supplements to look for USP verification on the label.
The next hurdle for supplements is more difficult because even with USP approval and each pill contains what it should, there is still the question of potency. Is there evidence the contents of a pill will get through the digestive process and make it to the cells intact and provide the desired effect? It’s hard to say.
What are the potential dangers of taking dietary supplements?
If you take large amounts of some vitamins that are fat-soluble (A, D, E, and K), they can accumulate in your body fat. This can lead to toxicity when taken in large doses, especially for Vitamins A and D. Several minerals also are fat-soluble and should not be taken in excess.
Especially important to doctors is the potential for adverse side effects that can interfere with prescription medications. In addition, taking some supplements prior to surgery could complicate things like blood clotting, etc. That’s why your doctor asks what supplements you take and may discourage you from doing so.
You may like:You’re likely stretching wrong before a workout. Here’s how you can warm up the right way
Another problem that I see arises from our human nature. Supplements often provide a false sense that they patch the holes in a bad diet, like a lack of fruits and vegetables. If you are a typical American, chances are good that too often you eat processed garbage that provides limited nutritional value, but lots of saturated fat and sugar, and you hope that swallowing vitamin pills will compensate and keep you healthy. While a pill may cover some of what you are missing, supplements in no way cancel out the effects of a bad diet.
Are there any pros to taking dietary supplements?
Many medical and nutritional experts strongly support dietary supplements. First, although you can get all the vitamins and minerals you need from a good diet, taking a supplement can — just in case — help fill in gaps. Second, the healthful benefits of supplements should not be judged only on a handful of medical research studies that showed no positive effects of a multivitamin on heart disease, cancer, and mental functioning.
Instead, a much broader view is needed, and despite the lack of large-scale sophisticated research, there is supporting evidence for many supplements. For example, pregnant women often need iron supplements and folic acid (a B vitamin). Vitamin D as a supplement is important for the absorption of calcium in bones. Vitamin B12 is found only in animal products, which means vegans may need a supplement to promote the health of nerve and blood cells. Vitamins C and E are antioxidants, as is coenzyme Q 10 (CoQ10) which protect cells from damage.
In addition, there is a vast array of botanicals and herbs like echinacea believed to bolster immune health, and turmeric, a spice that acts as an anti-inflammatory. The list of supplements of all kinds and their potential effects goes on and on.
You may like:Dairy, supplements or both? Here are 3+ ways to safely add more calcium to your diet
Should I add supplements to my diet?
If we assume supplements are not harmful when consumed responsibly, and they are not expensive, an argument can be made that “what do you have to lose?” My view is that supplements may provide health benefits, including as potential insurance to cover inadequacies in the diet, and I take several supplements daily. However, be cautious in your approach, and investigate products as well as you can before buying, searching for evidence on the quality of various products and brands. Shop for bargains and don’t fall for high-priced schemes that promise miracles.
Reach Bryant Stamford, a professor of kinesiology and integrative physiology at Hanover College, at [email protected]