Should You Toss the Supplements?

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toss the supplementsIf a study came out finding that people who drank water had no lower risk for dementia, would you stop drinking water? If another study came out finding that people who meet their recommendation for protein were at no lower risk for heart disease than people who ate too little protein, would you eliminate protein from your diet? Probably not. Both water and protein are essential nutrients. There is no controversy over their importance for human nutrition.

Three studies published in the December 16th issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine conclude that taking supplements had little or no effect on lowering the risk for cardiovascular disease and cancer (Fortmann, et al), cognition decline in men (Grodstein, et al), or death and cardiovascular events in people who had already suffered a heart attack (Lamas, et al). Is this cause to toss the supplements, as one editorial in the same journal concludes? I think not.

As with water and protein, vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients. Every human body needs them from conception to the end of life, but can synthesize only one of them, vitamin D. They must come from the diet on a regular basis and in amounts known to ensure life, as well as health. There is no controversy there. Our bodies don’t make the 13 essential vitamins and the 20 or more minerals known to be essential for life. A lack of even one vitamin or mineral over time can have devastating consequences, in many cases even death.

The implied message in these three studies is that people must be meeting their requirements for these essential nutrients from their diets, hence adding more through supplements has little or no effect on long-term health. Yet, numerous national nutrition surveys spanning decades of research have repeatedly and consistently found that many Americans do not meet the basic needs for certain vitamins and/or minerals. One study from the National Cancer Institute found that 99 out of every 100 Americans don’t meet even the minimum standards of a balanced diet (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1997;66:S1264-S1268). The USDA’s Healthy Eating Index, a tool to assess Americans’ eating habits, rating them on a scale of 0 to 100, consistently finds that most Americans score below or in the 60s, equivalent to an “F” or a “D” ranking on nutrition (Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 2012;November 15th). Why not fill in the gaps with a moderate-dose, well-balanced multi supplement on the days when people don’t eat perfectly? As these three studies found, there is no harm in taking a multi. In fact, it is one of the lowest cost preventive measures we can adopt. I can find no reason not to.

On one level, I agree with the findings of these research studies. There is not enough evidence to determine whether the risk of cardiovascular disease or cancer can be reduced solely by taking a supplement. That’s why they are called supplements, not substitutes for an excellent diet. Even the Grodstein study concludes that the subjects “…may have been too well-nourished to observe benefits from supplementation.” Even the most staunch supporters of supplements agree that no pill can replace a healthy diet and lifestyle. It is one factor in a pattern of living that is known and supported by thousands of well-designed studies to lower disease risk, obesity risk, premature aging, and premature death, while improving the quality of life and lowering the need to take medications. I will continue taking my supplements.

Elizabeth Somer, M.A.,R.D.

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