Among the COVID-19 pandemic, I am sure you have noticed the shelves of your local pharmacies and grocery stores are completely empty, where the Vitamin C, Zinc, Emergen-C, and Airborne would typically be. This came as no surprise to me, as the myths that surround dietary supplements flood the media daily. In this article, I am going to help debunk the myths of dietary supplements, and why you should be getting these essential vitamins and minerals from natural sources - aka, FOOD!
In the United States, the most common supplement that is taken by individuals of every age group is the Multivitamin. There is no legal definition of what a multivitamin needs to consist of, which creates a lot of room for adverse effects for consumers. The majority of consumers do not know how to read and interpret product labels and tend to just take multivitamins as they believe that vitamins in excess are better. However, the problem is that consumers don’t understand that the majority of these vitamins and minerals have upper limits established for them, and when consuming them in excess, there can actually be way more harm than good.
The supplement industry can be misleading, as supplements do not need to be inspected or graded by any federal agency. The claims on the supplement label just need to be pre-approved by the FDA. Since dietary supplements are not inspected by the FDA, the only way for a supplement to be taken off the market is if there were reports of serious adverse health effects. Unfortunately, many individuals fail to report these hospitalizations and illnesses because they don’t realize that they could be caused by a simple vitamin. This is why it is always important to speak with a medical professional or RDN prior to beginning any sort of supplementation regimen.
For each age group, the population has a different reason for taking specific vitamins. For example: children take multivitamins for tooth health and cavity prevention, whereas adults take vitamins as they are looking for better bone health and “increased energy.” However, what consumers need to be educated on is that it is always better to receive vitamins and minerals from food sources, as opposed to supplements. The majority of the population does receive the adequate levels of vitamins and minerals in their regular diet, and when they are taking multivitamins as well, they are ingesting toxic levels. Vitamins that are found naturally in food are able to be better absorbed, and the body will only activate what it needs, whereas in supplements the vitamins are usually already active, and the body receives excess of what is needed. This excess in vitamins is dangerous for the liver to detoxify and can lead to adverse health effects. You have probably noticed on some vitamin or mineral labels, that it will list an ingredient (for example, Vitamin C) and it will show 300% of the Daily Value. This is bad! This creates an imbalance that will throw off the ratios of other vitamins in the body that work in conjunction with Vitamin C. This ends up creating circulating free radicals - which are known to cause cancer and other diseases.
Individuals should only consume vitamins if they are needing to fill a dietary gap that is due to either medications, absorption, age, limited energy intake, etc. There are individuals who do need a supplement if they are lacking the proper levels of certain vitamins and minerals. For example, someone who is taking a proton pump inhibitor (such as Prevacid) might need supplementation of B12 since the absorption is altered with this medication. Another example is the supplementation of Iron in an adolescent female who has low levels of this mineral. The most important factor for determining whether you have a deficiency is to meet with an RDN and conduct a dietary recall analysis, blood work, and clinical anthropometrics to determine whether one or more of these micronutrients are lacking. It is also critical to let the RDN or medical practitioner know of any medications and supplements that you are currently on so they can make proper conclusions about nutrition status.
For individuals who are taking more than one supplement, it is recommended to also bring in the bottles of the supplements to the health care provider so they can fully read the labels and see if there are duplicates of certain vitamins in both supplements to see if any of them are being taken in excess amounts.
To conclude, micronutrient supplementation can be beneficial if that specific individual has a need for a certain vitamin or mineral that they are lacking. It can be harmful for a healthy individual who meets their daily nutrient requires from the diet to be taking supplements in excess to what they already receive. On the other hand, individuals who are taking certain diuretics, proton pump inhibitors, or blood thinners will most likely require careful supplementation of vitamins and minerals due to altered absorption. The groups of individuals who are most likely at risk of having nutrient deficiencies include vegetarians, vegans, alcoholics, older adults, and pregnant women. Otherwise, individuals who already consume a balanced diet on a daily basis, most likely do not need a dietary supplement.
Read more of Jordana's work here.