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Are vitamins and supplements really necessary?

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July 14th, 2016
Over one-half of U.S. adults use supplements, the most common being multivitamins.

Over one-half of U.S. adults use supplements, the most common being multivitamins.

The word “vitamin” was originally coined by the Polish biochemist Casimir Funk in 1912. He discovered why people who ate brown rice, which is rich in B vitamins, were less susceptible to beriberi—a disease caused by vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency. 

After that discovery, more scientists conducted nutritional research, and the understanding of vitamins as essential nutrients was quickly established. Shortly thereafter, vitamin-containing products hit the markets and today supplements are a huge business—in 2010, over $28 billion was spent in the United States alone. According to the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey, over one-half of U.S. adults use supplements, the most common being multivitamins. 

Despite widespread use, there remain many questions about the value of dietary supplements and multivitamins. After comprehensive review of the subject, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force concluded in 2014 that there is not enough evidence to state that multivitamins and various supplements prevent cancer or cardiovascular disease, or that benefits outweigh potential harms. 

On the other hand, there are now many studies that show eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low- or fat-free dairy, and seafood reduces risk for these conditions. This suggests that eating a balanced diet rich in nutrients is more healthful than taking a pill with similar nutrients. This certainly makes sense given that humans have been obtaining nutrients from food since time immemorial, and multivitamin pills are new to us all. It is also important to realize that foods have many more components than multivitamins that may make the difference.

Vitamin D  

While multivitamins may not be better than a well-balanced diet there are some vitamin supplements that are important to review with your provider. A significant number of seniors have low vitamin D levels because the average dietary intake of this vitamin typically falls short of recommended amounts. For this reason, the Institute of Medicine recommends vitamin D supplements of 600 IU/day for ages 1 to 70 and 800 IU/day for ages 71 and older to promote bone health. 

Vitamins and dietary supplements can come with risk. We typically assume they are safe because they don’t require a prescription, but they can cause significant harm. In 2011, a University of Illinois study found that greater than 15% of seniors took potentially fatal combinations of prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, and dietary supplements. Unlike medicines, these supplements are not subject to rigorous research and review by the Food and Drug Administration. We often do not know the full extent of how supplements and vitamin combinations affect health; even the amount of an active ingredient can vary from product to product and be negligible in one bottle and dangerously high in another. 

Please discuss any and all vitamin and dietary supplements with your doctor and be wary of the latest headlines about so-called breakthrough products. One thing is for certain—eating a healthful, balanced diet is a great way to prevent illness and be well—it’s more fun, too! 

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