Exploring efficacy of vitamin, mineral supplements

Vitamin intake poses potential health benefits, risks


Eating a well-balanced diet proves more effective than supplements at achieving recommended vitamin, mineral levels.

According to a 2013 Gallup poll, half of all Americans report regular vitamin or mineral supplement intake, with annual U.S. vitamin sales totaling $12 billion. Despite the widespread consumption of vitamins, it is unclear whether they offer the health benefits pharmaceutical companies claim.

Vitamins and minerals range in form and type, from folic acid and iron pills to common multivitamin chewables. These pills, tablets and liquids are biochemically diverse and vary in their molecular compound formulas.

“A ‘Multivitamin’ is the most commonly used supplement, and generally contains both vitamins — such as Vitamin C, Vitamin K, etc. — and minerals — such as iron, chromium, magnesium, etc.,” Elson Student Health Center nutritionist Melanie Brede said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “Each vitamin or mineral is a unique compound. An ingredient list on a multivitamin supplement label will list the common and chemical name of each compound.”

People often take vitamins to remedy diagnosed or perceived nutritional deficiencies. Depending on factors such as age, sex, pregnancy or health impairment, vitamin and mineral intake levels — usually measured by the Recommended Daily Allowance — are adjusted appropriately for each specific condition. However, Brede said taking vitamins is only effective in addressing actual dietary or health insufficiencies, and offer no advantage when such are absent.

Lawrence Appel, director of the Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology and Clinical Research at Johns Hopkins University, also assessed the fallacy that vitamins ensure health and energy.

“There are many possible reasons [for vitamin intake], most related to some belief that consumption of vitamins will improve health,” Appel said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “First, there is a [mystique] to the word ‘vitamin.’ If they were called ‘chemicals’ — which they are — many people would not take them. Second, marketing is extensive. Third, there are medical studies, most non-definitive, which suggest or imply the potential of benefit. Fourth, companies have gotten special regulatory status which allows them to market more easily (and with less evidence) than drugs.”

While there is currently little data in scientific literature proving the link between vitamin consumption and health benefits, research on vitamins remains prevalent.

“Research is ongoing to update recommended levels of various nutrients,” Brede said. “For example, historically, Vitamin D was considered essential for preventing deficiency diseases impacting skeletal health. More recent research has expanded our understanding of the roles Vitamin D plays in health, and the recommended levels were revised in the last decade.”

Just as there are possible benefits of vitamin intake, there are potential risks related to overdosing or absorbing unnecessary minerals in the body.

“Vitamin E supplements are associated with increased mortality at high doses [and] beta-carotene supplements increased the risk of lung cancer among smokers,” Appel said.

Due to the uncertain or potentially harmful effects of certain vitamins and minerals, Brede suggested eating healthy food as the best alternative to vitamins.

“A balanced diet is a safe and effective way to ensure adequate, but not too much, of the nutrients we need,” Brede said. “Getting a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fish, dairy, nuts and vegetable oils provides the vitamins and minerals we need. Supplemental vitamins and minerals can be used effectively to fill gaps if food allergies or intolerances prevent adequate intake of food sources of specific nutrients.”

Likewise, Appel proposed that a healthy diet and lifestyle should be favored over vitamin consumption.

“Quite frankly, it is amazing to me that so many people take vitamin and mineral supplements, often at very high doses, when the evidence is so weak,” Appel said. “Some simple advice for all of us — ‘Eat less, eat right, move more.’”  

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