Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

Supplements – Why Bother?


Dietary supplements, such as the vitamin B sup...

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New research is questioning the benefits of the general population taking supplemental vitamins and minerals and some studies propose that for some people these supplements may pose some risks.

We all remember in the nutrition world when a few years ago, the shocking results of taking beta carotene supplements (highly marketed as an antioxidant at the time) actually contributed to more lung cancer cases in smokers when compared to a placebo pill.  And in 1989 taking tryptophan supplements (a sleep aid) caused an estimated 1500 cases and thirty-seven deaths from a debilitating condition called eosinophilia myalgia syndrome. The causes were never truly determined.

Those cases make the headlines, but lately the efficacy and safety of dietary supplements have again been questioned.  In a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, 85% of women surveyed reported using supplements as well as the fact that

Americans currently spend about $20 billion a year on supplements that may do no good or cause harm.

When 38,000 women, aged 55-69 were surveyed, a slightly higher rate of death (2.4%) was observed during the study period in women taking vitamin and mineral supplements than in women who did not.  The risk was particularly pronounced with the mineral iron.

Another study found that men who take a daily vitamin E supplement had an increased risk of prostate cancer.  The paper appears in the October 12th issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.  Men who were taking a daily dose of 400 IU of vitamin E from 2001 to 2008 had 17% more cases of prostate cancer than those men taking a placebo.

A study in the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons reports that some herbal supplements when combined with medications prescribed during an after surgery can have harmful side effects especially in older patients.

Another study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that people who took vitamins were more likely to have a healthier lifestyle in the first place.  The supplement industry does not have to prove or give evidence that their products are safe or offer benefits and can market them without this information.

The FDA said it has identified nearly 300 fraudulent products—promoted mainly for weight loss, sexual enhancement, and bodybuilding—that contain hidden or deceptively labeled ingredients.

FDA has received numerous reports of harm associated with the use of these products, including stroke, liver injury, kidney failure, heart palpitations, and death.

Generally, if you are using or considering using any product marketed as a dietary supplement, the FDA suggests that you:

  • Check with your health professional or a registered dietitian about any nutrients you may need in addition to your regular diet.
  • Ask you health care professional for help distinguishing between reliable and questionable information
  • Ask yourself if it sounds too good to be true.
  • Be cautious if the claims seem exaggerated.
  • Watch for claims that say “quick and effective”, “cure-all” or “totally safe”.
  • Do not trust personal testimonials.

Supplement use may be necessary in people who cannot get enough of a particular nutrient by diet alone.  Examples may include vitamin D, which is found in very few foods and omega-3 fatty acids when people neither can afford to eat fish or for those people who do not like fish.  In these cases, supplements can be effective.

Most people in the U.S get adequate nutrients based on the Recommended Dietary Allowances and most nutrition experts advise against taking supplements unless you are a strict vegan, are pregnant or plan to become pregnant.  Also the elderly may need extra nutrition support but a fortified cereal or a liquid supplement such as Boost or Ensure can easily accomplish this.

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2 thoughts on “Supplements – Why Bother?

  1. Excellent post! We will be linking to this particularly great content on our site. Keep up the good writing.


  2. Eosinophilia Myalgia Syndrome cases where associated with the ingestion of large amounts of contaminated L-tryptophan supplement and not by the L-tryptophan alone. Aminoacids, vitamin, mineral and other nutritional supplements should be regulated and tested by FDA before being released to the market which doesn’t happen. So this increase of the amounts of deaths can be caused by bad quality supplements or also by the simple fact that the health condition of the supplemented group was worse than the one not taking any supplements and that fact wasn’t taken into analysis.


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