Vitamin Supplements: Do We Really Need Them?

by Charles Platkin, PhD

Every morning without fail, I take the largest, most powerful, multivitamin on the market, as well as a “supersized” C. But with the latest research showing that many of the best-selling herbal (e.g., St. John’s Wort for depression, ephedra for weight loss, Echinacea for colds, Ginkgo for memory) are either useless for their promoted purposes or hazardous, I wondered — are vitamin supplements the next to be challenged?

First of all, it’s important to note that we need vitamins — they’re required for normal body functions, mental alertness and resistance to infection. They also enable our bodies to process proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Certain vitamins even help produce blood cells, hormones, and genetic material, as well as support nervous system function. The problem is that our body can’t make most of these micronutrients, so we need to get them from some other source.

Most experts agree that given our hectic lifestyles and inappropriate food choices, it’s important that we get some type of vitamin supplementation. “In the best of all worlds, if we ate properly, we wouldn’t need to take vitamin supplements. But since we live in a world where people abuse themselves with fast foods and poor dietary choices, supplements provide a partial solution,” says Barbara Levine, Ph.D., R.D., Director of the Human Program at The Rockefeller University.

In fact, a recent report by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reversed the association’s policy after 20 years and now encourages all adults to take at least one multivitamin a day. The report specifically points out that inadequate intake of several vitamins has been linked to chronic diseases, including coronary heart disease, cancer, and osteoporosis.

Although there is no “absolute certainty” that taking supplements does anything to improve your , most experts have a “why not take them” philosophy. “Pending strong evidence of effectiveness from randomized trials, it appears prudent for all adults to take vitamin supplements — as insurance — especially for those that don’t eat properly, including dieters and the elderly, and those that are on certain medications,” says Dr. Levine.

Others argue that taking vitamin supplements can “lull people into thinking that diet is not important. Vitamin supplementation is a not a cure-all and can’t replace eating properly. You can’t simply take a vitamin and eat only meat and potatoes, and still be assured of having appropriate nutrition,” says Ruth Kava, Ph.D., R.D., Director of Nutrition for the American Council on Science and Health.

People often think that taking vitamin supplements is an easy way to get the nutrients that they need, but that’s not the case. Researchers continue to find new substances in foods, such as phytochemicals and carotenoids, which appear to help ward off chronic illnesses like cancer and heart disease. It will be a long time before all those substances can be packaged into one convenient pill. “It could take hundreds of supplements to match what is packaged in one Brussels sprout, which has a variety of beneficial substances all wrapped together,” adds Dr. Levine. Consider a multivitamin as an insurance policy — it can cover your bases, but don’t rely on it to meet all your nutrient needs.

The following are a few tips to remember before taking any vitamin supplements:

  • Look for products bearing a USP (United States Pharmacopoeia) label. This is a standard of strength, quality, purity, labeling and packaging. This does not mean that the product has government approval for safety or effectiveness, but does indicate decent manufacturing processes.
  • For fat-soluble vitamins like A and D, if you’re already getting enough in your diet, supplementation could “put you at higher risk for an adverse health effect,” says Catharine Ross, Professor of Nutritional Science at Pennsylvania State University.
  • In the cases of vitamins like folic acid, B12, vitamin D, and niacin, “there is good evidence that the increased use of supplements and fortified foods can improve your health,” adds Dr. Ross.
  • You might want to check with a Registered Dietitian to see if a vitamin supplement is appropriate.
  • Avoid supplements that provide “megadoses.” “The RDA guidelines are more than most people need by design; they include large margins of variability, so that they cover the needs of 98 percent of healthy individuals,” says Dr. Kava.

Bottom line: I’m not letting go of my daily dose of multivitamins.

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