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Your dietary supplements could be doing nothing

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On Tuesday Federal agencies including the Department of Justice and the health and anti-trust regulators will announce criminal and civil actions related to unlawful advertising and sale of dietary supplements.
USA TODAY

Want more money for your holiday budget? Cross off dietary supplements from your grocery list.

My holiday wish is to clear up one of the major and most profitable myths in the world of nutrition. The majority of U.S. adults take dietary supplements. In fact, Americans spend more than $30 billion annually on dietary supplements including multivitamins, Omega 3 supplements and specific nutrients. Even your Facebook friends are selling multivitamins whose labels claim they are optimized for your body type.

It’s no secret that our bodies need vitamins and minerals to function. These micronutrients play a role in the ways our bodies do everything from generating energy to functioning as hormones. The truth is, most people don’t need supplements, nor do these products improve overall health.

Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly groups who benefit from supplementation including pregnant and lactating women, some vegans and vegetarians, the elderly and others.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that wisely choosing a variety of foods is the best nutrition-based strategy for promoting optimal health and reducing the risk of chronic disease. Here is why most people should stop buying supplements and instead focus on a well-balanced diet:

Nutrients in food work in synergy. Your health is more determined by the overall quality and variety of your diet than any single nutrient. In fact, nutrients tend to work together to produce a benefit when in a whole food, but when separated may not have the same beneficial effect.

For example, beta carotene found in many red-orange fruits and vegetables is well known for its conversion to vitamin A which then can have a positive effect on vision. But, when separated in high-dose supplements, it can be harmful and increase risk for lung cancer in former and current smokers.

Additionally, some specific high-fiber foods such as oats have been shown to be protective against heart disease. However, the soluble fiber component alone may not be the sole hero in the food as it contains many other healthful compounds working in synergy to produce the benefit.

They are ineffective for most. Perhaps due to their ineffectiveness in improving overall health, a multivitamin is not the answer to poor diet choices. Judging by their popularity and the consumer’s confidence in their efficacy, this may be hard to believe.

The old wives’ tales that Echinacea or vitamin C will fend off a cold lacks convincing scientific evidence. It’s a popular belief multivitamins will prevent heart disease, cognitive decline and cancer. While some observational studies have found evidence for reduced mortality with the use of some supplements, the gold standard randomized control trials do not show the same promise.

The bottom line: there is limited evidence that dietary supplements improve overall health for most people.

Some doses can be harmful. It’s worth noting that dietary supplements are not regulated by a government body. Therefore, levels claimed on the label may present in a different amount in the form sold. USP is an optional regulatory body and can be a good resource to help you determine a supplement’s safety.

More is not always better. Excess fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and K are not excreted by the body like their water-soluble counterparts vitamins C and B vitamins. Vitamins A and D can reach toxic levels and have been known to cause birth defects, increase the risk for certain cancers and damage tissues. Iron supplementation has also been proven harmful to those who do not need it.

Unless your physician tells you that you need dietary supplementation, simply filling your plate with a variety of foods from each food group is enough. Watch who you get advice from. Your friend on Facebook selling miracle pills most likely is not the most reputable source.

Shanthi Appelo is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at the Knox County Health Department.

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