By Mark Waghorn
Vitamins and supplements that countless people take to improve their health are just a waste of money, a new study contends. Researchers from Northwestern University say their health benefits are mainly in the mind and some may even do more harm than good.
According to the CDC, nearly six in 10 Americans regularly took dietary supplements in 2018. Last year, Americans spent nearly $50 billion on vitamins and supplements. However, the research team says there’s no “magic set of pills to keep you healthy.” Instead, diet and exercise are still the key to good health.
“Patients ask all the time, ‘What supplements should I be taking?’” says lead author Dr. Jeffrey Linder from Northwestern University in a media release. “They’re wasting money and focus thinking there has to be a magic set of pills that will keep them healthy when we should all be following the evidence-based practices of eating healthy and exercising,”
Certain supplements could cause cancer, not prevent it
Multivitamin tablets are particularly popular as they contain a mix of a dozen or so vital nutrients. The Health Food Manufacturers’ Association says more than a third of people feel they do not get all they need through their diet.
However, the systematic review of 84 studies found “insufficient evidence” that taking multivitamins, paired, or single supplements prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer. A team from the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), an independent panel of experts that makes evidence-based recommendations, carried out that review.
“The task force is not saying ‘don’t take multivitamins,’ but there’s this idea that if these were really good for you, we’d know by now,” Linder explains.
They specifically advise against taking beta-carotene supplements because of a possible increased risk of lung cancer.
“The harm is that talking with patients about supplements during the very limited time we get to see them, we’re missing out on counseling about how to really reduce cardiovascular risks, like through exercise or smoking cessation,” the study author continues.
Multivitamins don’t have everything found in your fruit and vegetables
Writing in JAMA, Dr. Linder and colleagues say more than half of American adults take vitamins and supplements, with their popularity projected to increase significantly over the next decade. Eating fruits and vegetables leads to decreased cardiovascular disease and cancer risk, according to the team.
So, it is reasonable to think key vitamins and minerals could be extracted and packaged into a pill – saving trouble and expense of maintaining a balanced diet. Unfortunately, researchers explain that whole fruits and vegetables contain a mixture of vitamins, plant chemicals, fiber, and other nutrients that probably combine to boost your health.
Micronutrients in isolation may act differently in the body than when naturally packaged with a host of other dietary components. Dr. Linder notes individuals who have a vitamin deficiency can still benefit from taking dietary supplements such as calcium and vitamin D. Previous studies have shown that they can prevent fractures and falls in older adults.
The revised guidelines do not apply to women who are pregnant or planning to start a family.
“Pregnant individuals should keep in mind that these guidelines don’t apply to them,” says co-author Dr. Natalie Cameron, an instructor of general internal medicine at Northwestern.
“Certain vitamins, such as folic acid, are essential for pregnant women to support healthy fetal development. The most common way to meet these needs is to take a prenatal vitamin. More data is needed to understand how specific vitamin supplementation may modify risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes and cardiovascular complications during pregnancy.”
Overcoming the cost of eating healthy
Recent research has found most women in the U.S. have poor heart health prior to becoming pregnant. Dr. Cameron says discussing vitamin supplementation and optimizing cardiovascular health prior to pregnancy is an important component of pre-natal care. However, healthy eating can be a challenge when U.S. food manufacturers focus on processed products packed with fat, sugar, and salt.
“To adopt a healthy diet and exercise more, that’s easier said than done, especially among lower-income Americans,” notes co-author Dr. Jenny Jia. “Healthy food is expensive, and people don’t always have the means to find environments to exercise—maybe it’s unsafe outdoors or they can’t afford a facility. So, what can we do to try to make it easier and help support healthier decisions?”
Dr. Jia has been working with charitable food pantries and banks that supply free groceries to help people pick healthier choices and encourage donors to provide healthier options or money.