Supplements: The Good and The Bad.

I have always been fascinated, and envious at the same time, of people who gulp down vitamins and supplements by the handful with the potential to add years to life, improve energy, and a better sex life – or all three. I tried to match their enthusiasm for these assorted pills but more often than not, I usually got very sick because my stomach could not tolerate the ingredients, or whatever is in them, wasting good money, because I just could not keep up the daily regimen for this form of therapy to make me feel better, look healthier, and younger.

In the Unites States, multivitamin/mineral (MVM) supplements is an $27 billion industry, 40 – 50% of the men and women 50 years of age or older regularly use supplements. The questions remain whether using supplements is beneficial to health. Results of randomized studies and trials of multivitamin supplements show that, for the majority of the population, there is no overall benefit from taking MVM supplements. Some studies have shown increased risk of cancers to using certain vitamins. Considering that these pills are not regulated like drugs, since The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 defined “dietary supplement” to include vitamins, minerals, botanical, and other ingredients, and ruled that supplements would be regulated as food. This act exempted the manufacturing companies from having to prove of efficacy of their products. The law also permitted supplement makers several kind of marketing claims that do not need Federal and Drug Administration approval, including structure/function statements which describe how a nutrient is intend to affect the body. Often the research behind a claim, e.g., “zinc helps maintain immunity” has no scientific agreement. Claims must also bear the disclaimer, (“This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease”).

The truth is there is no legal definition for ‘multivitamin’, manufacturers apply the term to any product supplying two or more vitamins, and generally, what is listed on the label is not what is really in the product. Supplement manufacturers must list each ingredient (and its quantity) in a product but they do not have to prove the accuracy of these lists. Unlike the case for drugs, human research is not required to prove that supplements are safe and effective.

There are some nutritional supplements health experts agree we do not need, and may be harmful if you are not diligent about dosages or side effects. According to Gale Maleskey, M.S., R.D. writing in Spry Living, list the vitamins and minerals we can skip:

• Trace minerals such as iron to treat anemia; zinc purportedly minimizes cold symptoms and helps with enlarged prostate; and copper supposedly eases rheumatoid arthritis. But these trace minerals are only safe in very small amounts, a few months of high dosage could start producing symptoms of toxicity, like fatigue, aches and pains.

• Extra folic acid. This B vitamin is now added to foods such as bread and breakfast cereals, most people now get the 400 micro grams (the recommended daily allowance), but recent research suggests that amounts higher than 800 micro grams might promote the growth of cancer. You may need extra folic acid if you abuse alcohol or take anti-seizure medications.

• Vitamin A is a lifesaver in third world countries against infection and blinding eye disease. But in the U. S., many researchers now believe people get more vitamin A they need from fortified foods. Too much vitamin A can promote osteoporosis. Your best bet is to get no more than 750 micro grams (2,500 IU) of vitamin A a day from foods or supplements. Get most of your vitamin A instead from beta-carotene, which can convert vitamin A in your body as needed.

• Large doses of vitamin E, more than 200 to 400 IUs is not helpful for heart or cancer prevention. Higher doses of vitamin E actually interfere with blood clotting or disrupt other antioxidants and fat-soluble vitamins. To get healthier, consume small amounts of vitamin E from fresh nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, avocados, unrefined nuts and vegetable oils.

• Green tea extract used for everything from weight loss to cognitive enhancement to cancer prevention, without much proof of benefit. Few studies suggested that drinking green tea is beneficial to your health in many ways. Go with the tea, instead of the pills, and drink about three cups a day for the most benefits.

• Growth hormone-releasing supplements that stimulate the body’s natural muscle-building growth hormone are popular with body builders and anti-aging fanatics. But even the producers of these products admit that you can stimulate growth hormone even better with high intensity exercise and getting enough sleep also increase growth hormone release.

When the USDA came out with its Dietary Guidelines last year, it also published information on the nutrients that most people do not get enough of. Here is what they are and how to get them through the foods you eat.

  1. Fiber can help prevent type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer and heart disease. Research suggest that consuming fiber-rich foods might boost weight loss by helping you feel fuller after you eat. Nutrition guidelines recommend that women eat 25 grams daily and men eat 38 grams. Great sources of fiber are plant-based foods – the less processed the better such as oranges (a cup of OJ has zero); whole grains: oatmeal and beans.

  2. Calcium is important for keeping bones and teeth strong, but also helps muscle contract, the nerves to transmit signals, blood clot and blood vessels to contract and expand. Adults ages 19 – 50 requires 1,000 mg per day; for women 51-plus and men 70-plus, needs 1,200 mg daily. Dairy products are good choices (choose non-fat or low-fat to limit saturated fat): milk or nonfat yogurt. If you are lactose intolerant like I am, dark leafy greens such as kale and collard greens that is well absorbed by the body.

  3. Potassium is critical to support normal blood pressure. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control, an adult should eat 2 or more servings of fruit per day and 3 or more servings of vegetables per day.

  4. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble nutrient that is important in bone building and has been linked with lower incidences of cancers and lower rate of immune-related conditions, such as type diabetes and multiple sclerosis. The primary way to get vitamin D is by UV rays from the sun, but vitamin D is also found naturally in fatty fish such as: salmon, mackerel and sardines, and in egg yolks.

Though many people take an active role in improving their health and increasing longevity, taking a pill daily is the easy way out and not eating foods laced with hormones, sugar and salt which might be difficult to avoid. Although multivitamin/minerals sales benefit from misleading information, although in the long run, MVMs may slightly increase the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease, but in the short run may produce little harm, however, despite the risk, people will continue to use them.

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