At your local grocery store, you’ve likely passed the health section and saw the seemingly endless rows of supplements lined on the shelves. From vitamin B to Calcium, there seems to be a supplement for just about every nutrient.
With so many options to choose from and a wide variety of claims regarding the health benefits of supplements, especially to the aging population, how do you decide which ones to take?
The answer to that question might surprise you: Take none.
Vitamins and minerals have long been used to treat nutrient deficiencies. In recent decades supplements have been promoted as a means to achieve better health and longevity – but do they actually work?
Actually, there is no proof of the real benefits of most supplements.
Recently, a group of scientists reviewed nearly 180 randomized clinical trials on vitamin and mineral supplement use to determine if any benefit existed.
They discovered that the four most commonly used supplements – multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin C – showed no consistent benefit in preventing heart disease, heart attack, stroke, or death from any cause.
Not only that, niacin (vitamin B3) and antioxidant supplements (think vitamin E) were associated with an actual increase in risk of all-cause mortality. In this case, supplements were doing more harm than good.
The one bright light might be folate, but the evidence is weak.
In a single scientific study, folate, commonly known as vitamin B9, was shown to reduce stroke risk by 20%. That sounds really impressive until you take into account that this study was conducted in China and that dietary habits of the Chinese participants in the study were likely very different than those of typical Americans.
Many cereals and other foods in our country are fortified with folate, so the effect seen in China might not translate to the US.
There is no question that someone with iron deficiency would benefit from iron supplements or that a pregnant woman may want to take a folate supplement to help prevent birth defects because she has no appetite for leafy greens.
Many of us are vitamin D deficient because we live in northern climates with reduced sun exposure. The use of supplements in these cases is necessary, but the widespread use of supplements goes far beyond such specific situations.
In the absence of a nutrient deficiency and given the overall lack of benefit of supplement use, researchers encourage doctors not to routinely prescribe supplements to their patients. And this advice makes sense.
After all, ask yourself a simple question: Americans have been taking vitamin supplements for years but are we actually any healthier?
In fact, supplements aren’t the answer to your nutritional problems – food is. Unlike supplements, a healthy diet has been shown repeatedly to benefit health and health outcomes.
Example: Adding 10 grams of whole food fiber per day has been shown to decrease the risk of experiencing a heart attack by 14% and to reduce the risk of dying from any cause by 27%. Additionally, adding just 1 piece of fruit per day reduces your risk of stroke by 6%.
Supplements have never been shown to have this degree of effect, so I encourage you to focus on diet, not on supplement pills. And so long as you follow a whole food, plant-based eating plan, chances are high you will get all the vitamins and minerals your aging body needs to attain better health.
What supplements do you take regularly? Why? Do you suffer from any deficiencies? Do you see any benefit you can definitely attribute to the supplement? Have you considered quitting the supplement and adding more of the foods that contain the nutrients you need? Please join the conversation!