The supplement business is a multi-billionaire industry and one that continues to grow with no signs of slowing down. Why are nutritional supplements so popular? People like the ease of swallowing a pill to make up for dietary shortfalls. Some see it as an inexpensive insurance policy against illness. In fact, up to half of all Americans take some form of vitamin, mineral, or antioxidant supplement. Despite the slick advertising, taking supplements, especially as a substitute for a healthy diet, isn’t necessarily the best idea for your pocketbook or your health.
Supplemental Doses of Vitamins & Minerals May Be Harmful
If something is healthy, we sometimes think more is better. This is particularly true for antioxidants. We’ve heard so much about antioxidants and how they fight oxidative stress and cellular damage. So, we’re eager to get them in any form possible. Antioxidant vitamins and minerals include vitamins A, C, E., and the mineral selenium as well as other antioxidant supplements, like coenzyme Q10 and alpha-lipoic acid.
However, studies don’t necessarily support taking these free radical fighters in pill form. For example, research shows that taking beta-carotene or vitamin A in supplement form is linked with a higher risk of lung cancer among smokers. Scientists also had high hopes that vitamin E would prevent heart attacks. Instead, they found that taking vitamin E as a supplement was linked with a higher risk of stroke.
Selenium intake, too, can be overdone. Above a certain dose, selenium can be toxic and the amount of selenium in some supplements is more than what your body necessarily needs on a daily basis. If you’re also getting selenium from food, you may push beyond what your body can safely handle.
And it’s not just antioxidant supplements that can be problematic. Calcium and calcium supplements are another example. Some studies show that taking calcium in supplement form is linked with a higher risk of kidney stores, whereas getting calcium from foods is not and may actually lower the risk. So, vitamins and minerals in supplement form don’t always behave the same as those from food sources.
Synthetic Vitamins Aren’t Always in a Form Your Body Can Readily Use
A vitamin supplement won’t offer benefits unless your body is able to use it. Folate is an essential B-vitamin your cells need for DNA replication and for growth and repair – an important job, would you say? Plus, low levels of folate are also associated with birth defects called neural tube defects in women who are pregnant. To help prevent neural tube defects, flour, bread, and other foods contain a synthetic form of folate called folic acid.
Unfortunately, up to 30% of the population has an enzyme variant that makes it difficult for them to convert folic acid to the active form of folate. Folic acid is the form you find in most vitamin supplements, not folate. If you have an enzyme variant that can’t easily make this conversion, folic acid can build up in your tissues. There are concerns that this build-up might be harmful. The safest way to get folate is to eat green, leafy vegetables, one of the best sources of natural folate.
You Don’t Know What You’re Getting
The supplement industry is not regulated by the FDA and manufacturers don’t have to get their approval before developing and marketing a supplement. The FDA only steps in if there are reports of adverse effects. As a result, what you see on a supplement label isn’t necessarily what you’re getting. Manufacturers sometimes cut corners or even add items that aren’t listed on the label.
When independent agencies have tested supplements in the past, they have found contaminants, even heavy metals. Less than two years ago, the New York State’s Attorney General office uncovered mislabeling and fraud involving four of the leading supplement manufacturers and retailers. Some of the herbal supplements contained none of what was stated on the label while others contained ingredients that shouldn’t have been there.
You Miss Out on Synergy
When you buy a supplement, you’re getting one or a few isolated vitamins, minerals, or other compounds. When you bite into a piece of whole fruit or a vegetable, you’re getting hundreds of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals in its natural form. These components work better together than they do in isolation. Supplements lack the natural synergy that you get from eating whole foods. You simply can’t package all of the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients in, say, an apple. Nature is the best “supplement” maker.
The Bottom Line
In certain situations, supplements may be necessary. If you eat a vegan diet, you’re not able to get enough vitamin B12 since this B-vitamin is only in animal-based foods. It can also be challenging to get enough zinc, iron, and calcium if you don’t eat meat or dairy. Plus, if you eat a very low calorie or restrictive diet, you may not consume enough food to meet your body’s requirement for vitamins and minerals. Of course, you shouldn’t be dropping your calorie intake that low to begin with. Your body needs nutritional support!
Plus, if you have certain health conditions or are pregnant, you may need extra nutritional support that you can’t get from diet alone. Then, there’s vitamin D/ We hear a lot about the role vitamin D plays in health and how it’s important to get enough of it. Depending upon where you live and how much direct sunlight you get, you may not a vitamin D supplement – but check a vitamin D level first.
So, there is a place for supplements – just don’t use them as a substitute for a healthy diet. By eating whole foods and getting at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day, you’ll supply your body with the micronutrients it needs in the most natural form possible.
British Journal of Nutrition. Volume 98, Issue 4 October 2007, pp. 665-666.
DrHyman.com. “Maximizing Methylation: The Key to Healthy Aging”
NY Times Well, “Knowing What’s in Your Supplements”
Harvard Health Publications. “Dietary supplements: Do they help or hurt?”
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