More than half of US adults take dietary supplements, such as multivitamins, herbs, and minerals, according to report from the Centers for Disease Control. And in our zeal to ensure that we’re getting all the nutrients we need for optimal health, we’re spending $27 billion a year on these products. But does this huge investment actually pay off in better health?
Here’s a look at recent research about the health effects of common supplements.
These products are not regulated by the FDA in the same manner as drugs are. Manufacturers don’t have to prove that their supplements are safe or effective, but are barred from making false claims about alleged health benefits.
The CDC reports that these are the most popular supplements, taken by nearly 40 percent of American adults in 2006. To find out if multivitamins help prevent serious diseases, the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) compared outcomes in 161,808 postmenopausal women, 41.5 percent of whom took multivitamins. Over the approximately eight-year study period, there were no significant difference in rates of common cancers, cardiovascular disease, or overall mortality among multivitamin users and non-users, the study reported.
61 percent of women over age 60 take calcium, hoping to reduce risk for osteoporosis, the brittle bone disease that can lead to fractures. However, a 2010 analysis of earlier studies involving some 12,000 patients found that calcium supplement use is linked to a 20 to 30 percent rise in heart attack risk. Earlier this month, a re-analysis of WHI results also found a higher risk of cardiovascular events, including heart attack, in older women who take calcium supplements. While the findings are controversial, experts suggest that the best ways to protect bone health are regular weight-bearing exercises, such as walking or jogging, and eating calcium-rich foods, such as low-fat dairy products.
41 percent of Americans are deficient in the sunshine vitamin, upping their risk for a wide range of disorders, including heart attacks, some cancers, and falls or injuries. Although sun exposure naturally triggers vitamin D production, research shows that in the northern US, even outdoor workers can develop deficiency in the winter, when the sun’s rays aren’t as strong. Relatively few foods contain vitamin D, such as eggs, oily fish, and vitamin D-fortified dairy products or cereal. Given vitamin D’s many health-protective benefits, a supplement may make sense, but there’s debate over the optimal dose. The Mayo Clinic advises an upper daily limit of 2,000 i.u. to avoid toxicities.
About 3,000 American babies a year are born with neural tube defects like spina bifida, a risk that can be reduced by up to 70 percent if moms-to-be take folic acid before and during pregnancy. Yet many young women aren’t getting the message, since only one-third of women ages 20 to 39 do so. Also called folate, folic acid is a B vitamin found in leafy green vegetables like spinach, citrus fruits, beans, cereals, and grains. Because diet alone may not provide enough, the Office of Women’s Health recommends that all women of childbearing age take 400 to 800 mcg of folic acid brand daily. This is particularly important during the month before conception and during the first trimester of pregnancy.
A surprising side effect of supplements
A new study published in Psychological Science reports that supplement users may feel invulnerable to health risks. The researchers told one group of participants that they’d be taking multivitamins and told another group that they’d be assigned placebo pills. Actually, all participants received the placebo, but those who thought they were getting multivitamins exercised less and made worse food choices (opting for a fattening buffet over an organic meal) than did those in the control group.
The moral is there could be a hidden price for relying solely on supplements to protect health, since some people get a false sense of security. Much as we’d like a quick fix, there’s a lot more to achieving optimal wellness than just popping pills, valuable as some supplements can be. Instead, a multitude of daily decisions—choosing fresh fruit over candy, eating well-balanced meals, making time to hit the gym regularly or take brisk walks in the sun, getting enough sleep and regular medical checkups—all play a vital role in leading a long, healthy life.
My name is Alice Clover, my goal has always been to provide convenient practical nutrition solutions, with the focus on improving wellness and avoiding sickness and disease.