Vitamin Supplements - Who Needs 'em?
Nutritional supplements are more popular than ever, and most people take at least one. But are they doing any good?
Do You Need a Daily Multivitamin?
In 1746 James Lind fed citrus fruits to British sailors in the hope it would cure scurvy. It worked, and ever since we have been infatuated with the idea that vitamins can cure disease.
Today many people take vitamin and mineral supplements as part of a strategy to stay healthy, but others feel that the vitamins in food are sufficient. They believe you don’t need to take additional supplements because the nutritional supplement industry is mostly hype – infomercials to get you to buy their products.
To make matters worse, there is a lot of conflicting advice about what is true and what is advertising. A large part of the problem is that each year researchers find out more about nutrition. Halfway through a study, preliminary findings are released. The press focuses on the positive (or negative) aspects, and the preliminary information is reported with much hype in the consumer market.
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As an example, let’s look at resveratrol – the antioxidant found naturally in grapes and wine. Claims run the gamut from it can slow down the aging process to speed up healing. In the lab, resveratrol is tested under controlled conditions. It has to be since it oxidizes quickly. In other words, it starts to rust as soon as it hits the air.
Do you think the average consumer takes the supplement under lab conditions? Do you think that might have something to do with the results you see at home versus what scientists see in the lab?
This is not to suggest vitamins and other nutritional supplements are not beneficial. There is a mountain of evidence to prove their benefit. Doctors routinely prescribe prenatal vitamins for pregnant women, people with osteoporosis, and a host of other health conditions.
Take the case of chronic eye disease. A report from the National Institutes of Health supports using the antioxidant vitamins C and E, along with beta carotene and zinc to prevent age-related macular degeneration (AMD) in those at high risk.
Despite this, there is no definitive scientific report that recommends we should all take a multivitamin. It would be nice to have clear answers, but it’s difficult to follow an individual person around and study their eating habits. Add to the mix an individual’s genetic history and things get even more complicated. There are many variables.
It’s always preferable to get your nutrition from food whenever possible. There is a synergy between foods that happens in the gut that vitamins can’t replicate. For instance, have some orange juice with your oatmeal. The phenols in oatmeal and the Vitamin C in orange juice work together to make LDL cholesterol less likely to stick to the walls of arteries.
However, for those of us who know we’re not eating as we should, supplements are a life raft in a sea of microwaved meals and fast food. Judging by the sales of nutritional supplements many people prefer to err on the side of vitamin supplements.
In 2010 the mammoth $28.1 billion supplement industry posted 4.4% growth in consumer sales. Although not a banner year, the figures show the depth and breadth of our love affair with vitamin supplements.
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If you want to add a dietary supplement to your diet, there are things you should do as a savvy consumer to protect your health. Don’t be swayed by 10 second sound bites on the news. Do your background research on authoritative web sites like MedlinePlus or National Institutes of Health, and ask yourself the following --
- What’s the benefit to me personally?
- Are there any safety risks?
- What’s the evidence for or against the particular product?
- What’s the proper dose to take?
- How long and when should you take it?
Rest assured that if you eat a poor diet, you will eventually pay for it with poor health, but on the flip side there is no guarantee that taking supplements will endow you with good health. Let nutritional supplements be just that – supplements to a good diet.