The Skinny on Dietary Supplements

I just finished reading a recently-released article on the “ineffectiveness” of dietary supplements. It is amazing to me that this subject and its exaggerated conclusions keeps coming up. The media is so quick to put out information that dietary supplements are not helping thousands – if not possibly millions – of people, and have a serious place in our daily lives supporting and protecting our health. Dietary supplements are an inexpensive, convenient, and reliable way to deliver specific quantities of particular nutrients to a person or an entire population. That is why so many people take multivitamins and other dietary supplements to improve or optimize their nutrient intake. That is also why dietary supplements are often used in clinical trials, to test whether certain nutrients or other substances can help fight against diseases such as cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis. However, there are some common myths about dietary supplements that may keep some people from making supplements a part of their everyday routine. Let’s take a look at some of these common myths and consider whether they are true or false. Using supplements may cause people to pay less attention to improving their diets. FALSE. Many nutrition surveys show that people who use supplements also tend to pay attention to their diets, in fact supplement users have slightly better diets than other people — not perfect diets by any means, but still better. Dietary improvement and supplement use are complementary aspects of the effort to adopt a healthier lifestyle. People who use supplements tend to go overboard, believing that if one is good, more is better. FALSE. Most people use dietary supplements in a reasonable way. National surveys show that more than 80% of supplement users take only one to three products on a regular basis, and in most cases one of those is a multivitamin. But taking more than this is by no means unreasonable. Regardless of the number of supplements you are taking, always be sure to read and heed label directions. Taking vitamins and minerals in quantities greater than the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is unsafe. FALSE. Most vitamins and some minerals are safe at levels many times greater than the RDA. The RDA is the level of intake recommended to maintain health, and is not in any way a safety limit. In fact, for many nutrients, for example vitamins D and E, scientific research suggests potential benefits can be gained by intakes beyond the RDA. The same experts that establish the RDA also set Upper Levels of Tolerable Intake (UL). The UL is also not a safety limit, but simply identifies a level of daily intake at which there is no known toxicity, and at which there is sufficient evidence of safety for the nutrient. The UL neither suggests that intakes above that level are unsafe, nor does it constitute a recommended intake. For some vitamins, like C and E, the UL is more than 10 times higher than the RDA. In some cases there is no UL as is the case for some B vitamins. This is because no study has ever identified an unsafe level, even when large amounts have been given. Recent clinical studies show that supplements don’t work. FALSE. Science moves in a stepwise fashion, and the steps are not always in a forward direction. Each new study adds to our total knowledge, even though it may sometimes seem that the results go back and forth, with positive news one week and negative news the next. What is important is the overall picture, and for dietary supplements the overall picture is pretty good. Calcium and vitamin D supplements help protect against osteoporosis, antioxidant supplements protect the eyes and the brain, omega-3 fatty acids are good for heart health, selenium may reduce the risk of getting prostate cancer, vitamin E and other vitamins reduce the risk of heart disease in some studies but not others and folic acid (a B vitamin) even helps protect against birth defects such as spinal bifida. Perhaps the strongest testimony to the fact that supplements work is the fact that the National Institutes of Health and other research organizations are pouring millions of dollars into more studies using various supplements for health promotion and disease prevention. The results are good enough to justify that kind of investment, and they are good enough to provide a reason for people to add supplements to their healthy lifestyle choices. Clinical trials are the most reliable tool for evaluating the benefits of specific nutrients or dietary habits. NOT NECESSARILY. Clinical trials are a valuable and reliable tool for assessing the effectiveness of pharmaceutical products (drugs). The drug can be given to one group of patients and not to another group, and the difference in response can be observed. The patients are not already being exposed to the drug from their diet or any other sources — they are getting it in the study or they are not getting it at all. Studying nutrients—both in nutritional supplements and food—is different. People are likely already getting these nutrients from their regular diets, and if participating in a nutritional study should not be asked to eliminate these foods—so it becomes very difficult to evaluate the effects of the added amounts. Additionally, the benefits of specific nutrients or dietary patterns are related to disease prevention, not disease treatment. Such benefits may take years to develop — much longer than most clinical trials. Finally, most clinical trials are conducted in people who already have a disease, or very high risk factors for the disease, so these trials are not really testing preventive effects, but are essentially testing treatment effects. When it comes to dietary patterns and nutrient intake, large observational studies should be strongly considered in identifying those factors that make people healthy. For example, everything we know about the benefits of diets high in fruits and vegetables is based on observing what people ordinarily eat and analyzing the health benefits of certain patterns of intake — it is not based on clinical trials showing those benefits. The same may apply to long term supplement use. If an observational study in tens of thousands of nurses shows that women who take vitamin E for at least 2 years have a 40% lower risk of heart disease, that is good information, even if it does not come from a controlled clinical trial. When it comes to diet and nutrition, the best advice is : Do what healthy people do and look at outcome based studies and Quality of Life Studies. Drug studies do not take into consideration the protection QOL of life that many supplements give people, they simply look at disease or no disease and the fact of the matter is that health does not work that simply. I encourage you to spend some time doing your own research, whether it be online, talking to your practitioner, talking to family and friends, or through other resources. Above all else, making informed decisions is the best thing you can do for your and your loved ones’ health. Additionally, if you’d like to talk to one of our consultants about the benefits of any of the supplements AMARC provides, and how they can work synergystically to improve your health and well-being along with god lifestyle choices, please give us a call at 866-765-9682.