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To Supplement or Not

pHion Balance  |  0 Comment

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, Americans spend nearly $30 billion a year on dietary supplements, and more than half of the adults in the U.S. supplement their diets with vitamins.

According to scientists, they’re all wasting their money. There’s no evidence, they say, that supplements extend your life or protect you from disease.

Even worse, some researchers contend that people who regularly take vitamin or mineral supplements could actually be shortening their lives. For example, one arm of a large European nutrition study (the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition) demonstrated that individuals taking daily calcium supplements had an 86% higher risk for heart attacks than those who took no extra calcium. In another widely publicized study conducted by the National Cancer Institute between 1985 and 1993, the adverse effects of beta-carotene supplements were unveiled: men who took beta-carotene were 18% more likely to develop lung cancer and 8% more likely to die from any cause than men who took placebos.

Here’s the rub, though: during the same time periods those studies were conducted, other no less meaningful (but, oddly, less widely publicized) trials produced conflicting results. A study published in the October 2011 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine revealed that individuals who took daily calcium supplements had a lower risk of all-cause mortality than non-supplement users. As for beta-carotene, high dietary intake is associated with a lower risk for cervical cancer, and beta-carotene supplementation appears to improve cognitive function – an important consideration if you’re at risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

Furthermore, there are some inconvenient statistical issues that could have diluted the strength of the aforementioned studies. First, it’s difficult to collect accurate information from “recall surveys” (a common practice in nutritional trials); thus, the data built into such studies is a bit fuzzy even before it gets masticated by the mathematicians. Second, people who take certain supplements may be doing so because they already have or are at risk for specific diseases (diabetes, heart disease, cancer, etc.); thus, their odds for reaching a “clinical endpoint” – death, for example – are already higher.

On the other hand, just because the same research paradigm that gave us Vioxx, Redux and Seldane (drugs withdrawn from the U.S. market due to potentially fatal side effects) is churning out studies that cast aspersions on your favorite supplement, this doesn’t mean you should disregard the scientists’ warnings. There’s clearly something going on here that deserves scrutiny, no matter what your stance on supplementation might be. And it’s clear that some supplements simply should not be taken indiscriminately: due to the risk of iron overload, no healthy adult male should take iron-fortified vitamins or iron supplements; in some situations, it can be dangerous to take folate without also taking vitamin B12; if you have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, you probably shouldn’t take more than 900 to 1,000 mg of calcium daily without consulting your health provider; if you’re a male smoker, you’d be well-advised to avoid beta-carotene supplements.

These days, most physicians and dieticians tell patients: “You don’t need to take a daily multivitamin as long as you’re eating a balanced diet.” Mind you, these are the same professionals who contend with the results of this nation’s collective malnutrition – masquerading as obesity – every single day. For a multitude of reasons, a balanced diet seems to be beyond the reach of most Americans. In the end, then, your decision to take supplements – and what those supplements will be – must be based on personal research and personal need. 

Here's to your wellness,


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