Popularity of vitamins is sky-high, but health experts question effectiveness5 min read
Vitamins and other dietary supplements are more popular than ever in the United States, with advertisements that promise everything from increased stamina to better brain function, each with the help of a gummy chewable or pill.
But local health experts said many of those claims are empty, and emphasized that a balanced diet and moderate use of supplements are better for the body and pocketbook.
“A lot of people overmedicate themselves with vitamins because they go to these vitamin shops where they are more than willing to sell you a bag full of vitamins, one for your skin, one for your hair, your energy and all that, but very often it’s not needed,” said Dr. Andrew Patane, an internal medicine provider at NYU Langone Huntington Medical Group. “Let a doctor who has examined you determine what vitamins you need to take and how much.”
From 2007-08 through 2017-18, the prevalence of dietary supplement use increased in all age groups among U.S. adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Vitamin and dietary supplements are more popular than ever in the U.S., with more than half of adults over 20 using them.
- Health experts say vitamin supplements can be used in moderation, but it’s a better idea to get your vitamins and minerals through a healthy, varied diet.
- Taking megadoses of certain vitamins can lead to a health condition called hypervitaminosis.
The percentage of people between ages 20 and 39 using dietary supplements increased from 34.7% in 2007-08 to 42.5% in 2017-18. For people between 40 and 59, it jumped from 51.4% to 59.2%, and for those 60 and older, it went from 66.9% to 74.3%, according to the 2017-18 survey.
More than 57% of adults age 20 and over reported using any dietary supplement over the past 30 days, according to the survey, which was released last year. That percentage jumped to more than 74% for people 60 and older.
Vitamin supplements — when taken in moderation — can be important to overall health. For example, some doctors recommend women take vitamin D or calcium for bone health as they get older. Women of childbearing age are usually urged to take folic acid. But loading up on extra vitamin C to ward off colds is not very effective, some experts said.
“Those fizzy drinks are just a gimmick,” said Colleen Chiariello, manager of nutrition and dietetics at Syosset Hospital. “You can get so much more vitamin C from an orange.”
In fact, many supplements, especially when taken in large quantities, do not lead to better health and can even be dangerous, Chiariello and other experts said.
“When people have the little pill boxes filled and they are taking 10 to 12 supplements a day, you wonder what they are actually hoping to get from this,” Chiariello said. “Most of them are going to be flushed out of your system.”
The main reason to be cautious, experts said, is because there is little oversight. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration notes on its website that it “does not have the authority to review dietary supplements for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed.”
Seeking a balanced diet
The federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans includes a healthy mix of vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy and fortified soy alternatives and protein. People who follow a balanced diet should get all the vitamins and minerals they need through their foods, experts said.
“We like to say we are a healthy population, but we’re really not,” Chiariello said. “Most people don’t get a balanced diet.”
Vitamin and mineral supplements, taken under the guidance of a doctor, can help fill some of those nutrition gaps, experts said.
“Nearly everybody is deficient or insufficient in at least something,” said Tara Allen, a registered nurse, nutritionist and personal trainer in Farmingdale. “There is so much processed food out there, it’s hard to get what we call the perfect diet.”
Allen believes everyone needs an individualized plan that starts by speaking with a doctor, then undergoing testing to determine their levels of vitamins and minerals.
“Most people do very well with a broad-spectrum vitamin-mineral supplement — something that doesn’t have a ton of any one thing,” she said. “You’re just kind of covering your bases.”
Too much of a good thing
Even if your diet does not include the recommended amount of fruits and veggies, you are probably still ingesting important vitamins and minerals through your food, according to Dr. Liron Sinvani, assistant professor at the Institute of Health System Science, Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research in Manhasset.
“A lot of the foods in the U.S. are fortified,” Sinvani said. “And I think we underestimate what we get through our diet. You can get 100% of the vitamin A you need by eating one sweet potato or half of a carrot. … If you look at some of the supplements people take, even a multivitamin, it can have 100% of the daily amount that you need without counting any food … this becomes problematic.”
If a person takes an excess of water soluble vitamins, such as vitamin B and vitamin C, it most likely will naturally flush out of their body through urine, Patane said. But vitamins that are fat soluble, such as vitamins A, D, E and K, store in the liver and fatty tissue.
Patane said people who take too many vitamins or megadoses of certain vitamins can develop a condition called hypervitaminosis.
“With hypervitaminosis, people can get irritated and confused, bone pain, fast heart rate and changes to your skin,” Patane said. “It can get you very sick, and it’s sometimes hard to diagnose.”
Sinvani said people should view vitamins and dietary supplements like any other medication that could have side effects.
“This is not just a free ride,” she said. “There’s no magic pill.”
Your daily dose
Health experts believe that while vitamin supplements can be helpful if used carefully, the best way to get your daily requirement of vitamins and minerals is through a variety of foods. Here are some examples:
- Vitamin A: Beef, liver, eggs, shrimp, fish, fortified milk, sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkins, spinach, mangoes.
- Vitamin C: Citrus fruit (such as oranges), potatoes, broccoli, bell peppers, spinach, strawberries, tomatoes.
- Vitamin D: Certain fish, fish liver oils, fortified milk and milk products (such as some yogurts and cheeses) and fortified cereals.
- Vitamin E: Leafy green vegetables, whole grains, nuts.
- Calcium: Yogurt, cheese, milk, salmon, leafy green vegetables.
- Iron: Red meat, poultry, eggs, fruits, green vegetables, fortified bread.
SOURCE: Harvard Health Publishing