Are Supplements A Necessary Part Of Your Diet?

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The constant barrage of health media is difficult to navigate; it is awash with scammers and salespeople. One of the most confusing facets of health media are supplements -- specifically vitamins and multivitamins and singular vitamin. So often the question is asked of which ones you should take, but why you should need them is so rarely asked. Experts are still debating the advantages and disadvantages of taking multivitamins; as with all health questions, they are best directed to your personal physician.

Multivitamins are often touted as a preventative step against heart problems, if not a miraculous cure-all.. Whatever the source of these beliefs, it is unreliable. There is simply not enough research make a claim about the relationship between supplement use and heart health one way or the other. Despite being on the market since the 1940s, there is an almost astounding lack of evidence as to the usefulness of multivitamin supplements. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition explains the absence of such information due to a variety of factors. The nature of different studies makes it difficult because “RCTs [randomized clinical trials] tend to be of relatively short duration, whereas CVD [cardiovascular disease] mortality has a long latency period. Observational studies often provide important information on long-term exposure to supplements in relation to morbidity and mortality, but they are often limited by their failure to assess important information on supplement use.”

While there is not enough information on multivitamins and heart conditions, there are still reasons to take them. The FDA lists three reasons a doctor may suggest you purchase multivitamins -- “for certain health problems, if you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, [or] if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.” While plants are an excellent source for many necessary nutrients, a Dutch study in 2003 found that vegans have an increased risk of vitamin B12 and B2 deficiencies, as well as insufficient amounts of minerals including iron and zinc.  “A vegan diet, in particular, leads to a strongly increased risk of deficiencies of vitamin B12, vitamin B2 and several minerals, such as calcium, iron and zinc. Even adding animal products (not including meat and fish) leaves you with a possible deficiency in B12 and iron. For those that adhere to these diets, supplements can offer the vitamins and minerals that their meals may lack.

Since the majority of what we hear about multivitamins is in a cheery advertisement or from the mouth of an excited talk show host, little information is circulating about potential risks. There are multiple studies that compare the health risks of supplement users and nonusers. Several of these examine the health of certain communities. For example, the 2011 Iowa Women’s Health Study found that, “In older women, several commonly used dietary vitamin and mineral supplements may be associated with increased total mortality risk; this association is strongest with supplemental iron. In contrast to the findings of many studies, calcium is associated with decreased risk.” The mean age of the trial subjects was 61.6. Beyond age, another factor that contributes to the risk of supplements is smoking. The American Cancer Society published a study in 2008 found that high doses of beta-carotene, and ingredient commonly found in multivitamins was linked to an “increase the risk of lung cancer among current smokers.” It seems that outside of the specific communities studied in such trials, there is little evidence for risk in supplements. Dr. Eliseo Guallar of John Hopkins is quoted by Harvard Health Publishing as saying, “While I agree that the likelihood of harm is small, the likelihood of a clear health benefit is also very small—and also we have no clear proof yet of such benefit.”

There are experts that recommend taking multivitamins; there are experts that call it all a waste of money; the medical community is undecided. If you suspect that you may have a deficiency (symptoms of deficiency vary widely), adjust your diet to include more of the mineral you lack. If your body does not show changes in symptoms after a change in diet, there is perhaps another cause for said symptoms. If it is vitamin related, then it could be malabsorption syndrome, meaning that something is interfering with your small intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients. If your body does not show changes in symptoms after a change in diet, there is perhaps another cause for said symptoms. No matter the circumstance, your physician is your best source for information.