To Supplement Or Not To Supplement: That Is The Question

“Vitamin Supplements May Do More Harm than Good” was the title of an article in the news today. While it’s no surprise to me that the benefits of vitamin supplements are questionable, to say that they are actually harmful issurprising…and a bit alarming.

So, is it true?

In this case, the article refers to the results of a large, ongoing study conducted at the University of Minnesota.  The researchers examined data from more than 38,000 women taking part in the Iowa Women’s Health Study, a study with women who were around age 62 at its start in 1986. The researchers collected data on the women’s use of supplements in 1986, 1997 and 2004.

They found that the women who took supplements had, on average, a 2.4 percent increased risk of dying over the course of the 19-year study, compared with women who didn’t take supplements, after the researchers adjusted for factors including the women’s age and calorie intake.

But did the supplements themselves cause the increased risk of death?  There’s really no way to know but my guess is probably not. It’s possible that women with health problems are more likely to take vitamin supplements in an attempt to improve their health and the increased risk for death was caused by the health problems, not the supplements.

However, one thing is for sure: vitamin supplements do not prevent chronic disease, such as cancer, heart disease, or diabetes, nor do they make you live longer.

And there’s plenty of data to support this statement:

  • In a study of 182,000 middle-aged men and women living in California and Hawaii, those who took multivitamin supplements (MVIs) did not live any longer and were no less likely to be diagnosed with heart disease or cancer as those who didn’t take a MVI.
  • The Women’s Health Initiative Cohort study of 161,000 women found that women who took MVIs were just as likely to be diagnosed with breast, ovarian, colorectal, and other cancers, as the women who did not take MVI’s.
  • In the Physician’s Health Study of 83,000 men aged 40 – 84, the men who took MVI’s were just as likely to die from cardiovascular disease or stroke as the men who didn’t take a MVI.

Are there any benefits to taking vitamin or mineral supplements?  Yes, but only for certain people who have (or who are at risk for) certain medical conditions.

In fact, the US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee determined that there are seven nutrients that most Americans consume too little of and the first two are not found in substantial amounts in supplemental form (fiber and potassium), but the remaining five are:

  • Vitamin D
  • Calcium
  • Folic acid
  • Vitamin B-12 (mostly in people over the age of 50 – listen up, master athletes!)
  • Iron – 15% of women 50 and younger are iron deficient (especially vegan athletes)

Of course, the best source for all of these nutrients is good old-fashioned food but some people restrict or eliminate entire food groups, making it difficult to obtain adequate amounts of these nutrients.

For instance, those who cannot (or will not) consume dairy products, a calcium and vitamin D supplement is probably a good idea. For vegetarians who eat no animal products at all, iron and vitamin B12 supplements are in order.

But for most people, taking a vitamin supplement should not be viewed as a requirement for good health and well-being. Rather, supplements are merely intended to fill in the nutritional gaps of your typical daily diet. Mother Nature can do the rest.

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