It’s time to re-evaluate vitamin supplements. It’s great to improve your health, and it makes sense to assume that extra vitamins are the quickest way to do that. Besides, a multimillion-dollar industry sells the idea that a multivitamin is the best way get all the vitamins and minerals our bodies need. New research suggests that these pills may not play as big of a role in our health as we once thought, however.
Defining a “Vitamin”
Our bodies need vitamins and minerals to function properly. The World Health Organization refers to vitamins as micronutrients, because the actual amounts needed are minute—but incredibly important nonetheless. Vitamins allow our bodies to produce enzymes and hormones that are essential for growth and development. Generally, vitamins fall into one of two categories. They’re either fat soluble or water soluble. Fat-soluble vitamins are absorbed in the small intestine and stored in the liver or body fat for long periods of time. Examples of fat-soluble micronutrients include vitamins D, E, K, and A. Water-soluble vitamins dissolve more quickly in the body, which means your body won’t store them for later. These are the micronutrients you want to ingest on a regular basis. Vitamin C and the B-complex group are all water soluble.
There’s no such thing as a quick fix.
Half of American adults take a vitamin or mineral supplement on a regular basis, reports a 2013 Gallup poll. That means there’s a lot of money to be made from supplements. In fact, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, Americans spent $12.8 billion out of pocket for natural product supplements in 2012. Consumers seem to truly believe taking a pill is the best way to manage their health. And who can blame them? Industry voices have been telling people for years that supplements help stave off diseases. Recently, however, studies have begun to prove otherwise. Researchers at Johns Hopkins found no correlation between supplement use and a decrease in heart disease, cancer, or cognitive decline.
More isn’t always better.
Anyone who takes supplements should understand two numbers used to describe micronutrients: the recommended daily allowance (RDA) and the tolerable upper intake level (UL). According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the RDA is the amount of a given substance your body needs to keep functioning optimally. The UL describes the maximum dosage level consumers can safely take without fear of serious side effects. Exceeding UL levels of supplements can lead to health problems. Too much vitamin A and beta-carotene can lead to an increase in hip fractures, liver damage, and possibly an increased risk of lung cancer. Taking too much B2 (riboflavin) won’t hurt you, but it won’t help, either. Your body will flush out the excess, so you’re sending your money down the drain. The same goes for B12.
Upgrade your diet instead.
Most nutritionists will tell you the best way to take charge of your health is with a balanced diet. Your body is able to get all the vitamins and minerals it needs from food, as long as you’re eating mindfully. A healthy meal should consist of 50 percent vegetables, one-quarter grains, and one-quarter protein. There are certainly situations in which doctors recommend supplements, but the irony is most people who take them are not the ones who need them. Vitamin users tend to be more affluent and health-conscious than others, wrote pharmacist Scott Gavura. So the folks most likely to take supplements are less likely to need them than those who don’t.
So do you need vitamins or other supplements?
Carol Haggans, a registered dietician who consults at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), answered this question in a blog post on the NIH website. “Talk to a health care provider for advice on whether you need a supplement in the first place, the dose, and possible interactions with medicine you’re already taking,” Haggans wrote.