Alt-Health: Are Supplements Necessary?

Vitamins and herbal supplements have become a standard product on American shelves. According to DC-based trade association and lobbying group Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), more than 71% of US adults now take dietary supplements, up from 40% – 50% in 2006. The five most popular are multivitamins (MVMs), vitamin D, vitamin C, calcium and vitamin B/B complex. The CRN cheered these figures, as well they should – the increase in profits for the dietary supplement and functional food industry is in the billions. However, the mainstream medical industry is not as enthusiastic.

Both sides agree on one thing: There are certain cases in which individuals really do need vitamins or supplements. For instance, pre-natal vitamins and iron greatly reduce the risk of anemia and perinatal complications in mothers, and some diseases are accompanied by deficiencies that require nutritional support. However, the agreement stops there. Supplement proponents see their products as the key to longevity and better health for all – but the AMA cites evidence that the average person doesn’t really need them. In fact, their research shows that in some cases supplements can even have an adverse effect. A 1996 study on the effect of beta carotene on lung cancer held great promise going in, but the conclusions were a surprise: Four years of supplementation with beta carotene and vitamin A showed an increase in lung cancer cases of 18% and an increase in total mortality of 8%. The adverse effects extended to cardiovascular disease as well, and this was not the only caveat for supplements. A re-analysis by the Women’s Health Initiative concluded that calcium supplements with or without vitamin D increased the risk of cardiovascular events, particularly myocardial infarction. And those best-selling MVM’s? The people who took them long-term actually experienced a slight increase in the risk of cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

But there are many who would argue the conclusions drawn from those results. Research teams are paid for by interested parties and have been known to be disputed, and in determining long-term effects on health, the lifestyle of participants, along with attitude and environmental factors, may have as much or more of an effect on test results as the substance being tested. The quality and/or source of supplements administered figures in as well. It’s doubtful that the calcium derived from chalk or oyster shells used in medical studies would have the same effect on the body as calcium hydroxyapatite, a form chemically similar to the mineral component of bones.

There seems to be no definitive answer as to whether we really need supplements. The natural food industry would have us believe that all of us do. Those companies can be very aggressive in preying on the hopes and fears of an over-extended society. They understand the mind set of the American public well: We want quick fixes. There are a lot of unhealthy, stressed-out people who take supplements in the belief that a pill alone can compensate for being overweight, eating crap and sitting in a chair all day. They want a magic bullet. Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous companies out there who have no qualms about selling us blanks.  In 2015, a coalition led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman found that nearly four in every five herbal supplements tested at major retailers (including GNC and Target) in New York did not contain the ingredients stated on the label, or had potencies far less than claimed. More than a third of them also contained unlisted contaminants.

One thing is clear: If you take vitamins or supplements, don’t run out and get them after watching a testimonial from a celebrity or hearing a five minute spot on the news. Get advice from a health care professional with a solid education in nutrition. This is also a good way to ensure that you are buying the best. The brands that naturopathic physicians carry tend to be from highly reputable manufacturers who regulate their products with care. If you buy off the supermarket shelves, take a good hard look at the source. “All natural” is a marketing term, not a guarantee of quality.

The bottom line? It is always best to meet your vitamin and nutritional needs with whole food rather than supplements. There are many elements in food that affect absorption and utilization of any nutrient. Isolating vitamins immediately changes their effect on your body. My niece attended West Point, which uses only the top-of-the-line products to treat their military elite. When she developed fatigue and her performance lagged, they did a hair analysis and then changed her diet. They could afford the best – and they chose food.

And speaking of food, get real! The white flour, refined sugars and artificially “fortified” products that we regard as staples can’t hold a candle to fresh produce, meats and whole grains. When it comes to your body, don’t try to fool Mother Nature. In the long run, she will kick your ass.

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