Looking for a way to save money? Maybe it’s time to stop spending money on vitamin, mineral and herbal supplements. About 53 percent of American adults take some kind of supplement on a regular basis. This is an increase from 30 percent 20 years ago. Americans currently spend $30 billion a year on supplements.
Three new studies published in the Annals of Internal Medicine have failed to prove any benefit associated with taking supplements. They studied the effect of supplements on mortality, cardiovascular disease, cancer and cognitive decline, and found no difference in the groups who took the vitamin supplements and those that did not. The conclusion was that the general population who have no clear evidence of a deficiency do not benefit from vitamin supplementation.
Our bodies can use only so much vitamins and minerals. Once we’ve reached the limit, excess water-soluble vitamins are simply excreted in our urine. Excess fat-soluble vitamins get stored in our fat, and can become harmful to us. Too much beta-carotene has been linked to an increased risk of lung cancer in smokers. Too much vitamin E increases the risk of prostate cancer. Too much vitamin A can increase the risk of osteoporosis and hip fracture.
Vitamin supplements do not make up for a bad diet. They are not a substitute for food. Supplements simply cannot replicate all the nutrients and benefits that we get from food. Take an orange, for example. Not only are you getting vitamin C, but also beta-carotene, calcium, fiber, phytochemicals and antioxidants. A pill just can’t compete with that, no matter how much you pay for it.
People sometimes turn to herbal supplements as a means to avoid taking prescription drugs or to improve their health. Half of all Americans take herbal supplements, and it has become a $5 billion a year industry.
Most people believe that herbal supplements are safe to use because they are advertised as “natural” or “organic” and are legally sold and readily available. There are an estimated 50,000 adverse effects reported annually associated with the use of herbal supplements. Herbal supplements may contain unlabeled toxic or allergenic ingredients as part of their fillers. They may interact with prescription drugs you take.
Did you know that herbal supplement manufacturers are not regulated by any government agency? These supplements are not FDA approved and are not required to go through any testing for quality, truthfulness or accuracy in labeling. You can’t even be sure you are getting the dosage that the label says.
There are a few exceptions with supplement recommendations, namely folic acid for women of childbearing age. Calcium, vitamin D and B12 supplements commonly are recommended because it can be difficult to get adequate amounts of these solely from your diet.
Food is always the best source to meet all of our nutritional needs. Eating a balanced diet and including a variety of foods is ideal. Adding specific foods with high targeted nutrients can help if you think you may be lacking in certain vitamins. For example, spinach is rich in iron, potassium, vitamins A, C, E and K and magnesium. Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of vitamins A, B6, and C, fiber, potassium, and carotene. Salmon and tuna are rich in omega 3 fatty acids. Avocados are very rich in B vitamins, vitamins E and K, as well as healthy monounsaturated fats. Many common foods, like cereals, beverages and granola bars are now fortified with vitamins and minerals.
Here are some questions you should ask yourself if you still think you need to take vitamin supplements:
Do you eat fewer than two meals a day or consume fewer than 1,500 calories daily?
Is your diet restricted? Or, do you eliminate an entire food group, like meat or dairy?
Have you unintentionally lost more than 10 pounds in the past six months?
Do you have three or more alcoholic drinks daily?
Are you pregnant or trying to get pregnant?
Do you have a medical condition that affects how your body absorbs food? Examples might be chronic diarrhea, food allergies or intolerances, or diseases of the liver, gallbladder, intestines or pancreas.
If you can answer yes to any of these questions, you should ask your health provider discuss whether you need vitamin supplements.
Should you opt to take vitamin, mineral or herbal supplements, consider these factors.
Avoid mega doses. In general, do not exceed 100 percent of the recommended daily allowance, unless recommended by your health provider.
Check expiration dates. Dietary supplements lose potency throughout time, especially when stored in warm, humid environments like a bathroom. Discard any past the expiration date.
Ideally, take supplements with food and water. This ensures there is liquid to help dissolve the pill and fat to help absorb the vitamins.
Inform your doctor or pharmacist of all supplements you take if you are on any prescription medicines. Some supplements, especially herbal supplements, can interact dangerously with prescription drugs.
Read labels carefully to determine what dosage is recommended. Choose reputable brands with a seal of approval from ConsumerLab, NSF or United States Pharmacopeia.
Use caution with any herbal supplements. Remember that their claims have not been tested or proven, there is no regulation to ensure you are getting what is on the label, and there is a danger of adverse reactions.
Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.