Experts weigh in on the value of vitamins, supplements


The debate about whether vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other supplements are beneficial to our health or just a waste of money has been raging since before your mother dutifully handed you a Flintstones Vitamin every morning with your breakfast cereal.

Most recently, two studies published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that for older men, taking a multivitamin had no effect on cognitive decline, no significant impact on heart disease and only a marginal decrease in cancer risk.

In an editorial in the December issue of the journal, doctors assessed these studies and others examining the efficacy of multivitamins and the potential risks associated with other supplements and offered this conclusion:

“We believe that the case is closed — supplementing the diet of well-nourished adults with (most) mineral or vitamin supplements has no clear benefit and might even be harmful,” an editorial in the December issue reads. “These vitamins should not be used for chronic disease prevention. Enough is enough.”

You are what you eat

When it comes to supplementing your diet with vitamins, minerals and other remedies, local experts believe that less is more.

Diana Dykes, who works in the Wellness Center at Sonnewald Natural Food in Spring Grove, takes a multivitamin three or four times a week and tests out other natural remedies here and there to treat chronic ailments such as gum disease and to help improve her focus.

But rather than totally relying on health in a bottle, she focuses on eating a nutritious diet, filled with fresh, locally sourced foods (she said she often eats her breakfast from her backyard — making shakes out of a piece of fruit and leafy greens most people would call weeds).

“I’d rather eat my medicine than take a pill,” Dykes said.

A more balanced approach

Kelly Marsteller, a registered dietitian at Memorial Hospital, agrees with this approach.

“Our bodies were designed to get energy from food,” she said, adding that nutrients from man-made vitamins and supplements aren’t absorbed as easily as those from foods — and in many cases might not be absorbed at all and just eliminated as waste.

She encourages her patients to get all the nutrients they need from a balanced diet — only prescribing multivitamins for extra-picky eaters or elderly people who aren’t as active and don’t have big appetites.

Supplements might also be recommended in situations where, through a blood test, a patient is found to be deficient in a specific nutrient — like iron, calcium or Vitamin D — or for women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant.

A word of advice

Whether you can’t shake your mother’s nagging voice, or believe that using vitamins and supplements have had a positive impact on your health, here are some things to be aware of:

  1. Check with your doctor before taking any vitamins or nutritional supplements, especially if you are pregnant, nursing or suffer from a chronic medical condition like diabetes, heart disease or hypertension, the FDA recommends. In addition, it’s also important to be aware of any potential interactions vitamins and supplements could have with over-the-counter and prescription medication you might be taking.
  2. When shopping for multivitamins, look for those that are food-based rather than chemical-based, Diana Dykes, who works in the Wellness Center at Sonnewald Natural Food in Spring Grove, said. Just as you would with processed foods, Kelly Marsteller, a registered dietitian at Memorial Hospital, said to avoid products with a long list of added ingredients with names you can’t pronounce.
  3. When it comes to meal-replacement or protein shakes like Shakeology or Slim-Fast, Marsteller said they’re OK to drink every once in a while, when you’re too busy to sit down for a regular meal. But it’s better to get those nutrients and calories from food.
  4. Fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E and K can be dangerous in high dosages over time, Marsteller said. Vitamin A has been linked to birth defects; Vitamin E can increase your risk of hemorrhaging; and Vitamin K can work against blood-thinning medication.
  5. When looking for natural remedies for a specific problem — whether it’s arthritis, athlete’s foot or ADD — talk to someone who has experience with that problem and who can provide you with resources and research to learn more about it, Dykes said. “Just don’t take someone’s words for it,” she added. “Ask for more information.”

Did you know?

The FDA regulates dietary supplements under a different set of guidelines than those covering other food and drug products. Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, the manufacturer is responsible for ensuring the safety of a product before it is marketed; the FDA is only responsible for taking action against any unsafe dietary supplement after it reaches the market.

— Source: FDA.gov

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