Are your vitamins and mineral supplements actually doing anything? That’s what the experts say.

Separate dishes from different food additives.

Experts emphasize a “food first” approach to nutrients. (Getty Images)

With cold and flu season in full swing, this is the season for many americans to ditch one or more dietary supplements in hopes of staving off illnesses. And it’s not just a winter habit. For many, they have become routine, with approximately 58% of people aged 20 or older Report use of at least one dietary supplement.

But do all those little pills – that’s what they’re made of A multi-billion dollar industry – Actually do anything?

Dietary supplement versus food

Experts say that food is superior to supplements as the best source of nutrients. Dr. Marilyn Tan, assistant professor of medicine at Stanford University, explained the benefits of getting a nutrient in gradually throughout the day rather than getting “a large portion of it at once” via a pill.

“I think if you can have it throughout the day — for example, in nutrients through food — it gets absorbed better. Because there’s a maximum amount that your body can absorb at one time,” she said. “For example, for calcium, If you take in more than 500 to 1,000 milligrams, your body will just pee. And there are so many vitamins this way, that you can’t absorb such a large amount at once.”

Most Americans already get the nutrients they need from food alone, Tan said.

“Most people who follow a standard American diet, unless they follow a very restricted diet, get adequate nutrients through their diet,” she said. “Vitamin deficiencies can occur in certain conditions like malabsorption or pernicious anemia, for example, but for the average American, who is otherwise healthy, gets plenty of nutrients through diet.”

Lisa Moskovitz, registered dietitian, CEO of NY Nutrition Group and author “3 Essential Plan for Healthy Eating,” He told Yahoo News that for someone who already eats a relatively healthy diet, the supplement probably won’t make much difference “and it can be a waste of money and really expensive urine,” as your body flushes out all those excess nutrients. For people who are already getting enough nutrients through their diet, adding a multivitamin supplement will not necessarily give them the extra boost they might be hoping for.

“If you already have adequate levels in your body and you’re taking a supplement of B12, for example, you won’t feel more energy from taking B12 if you already have enough B12 in your system to begin with,” she said. .

When might supplementation be a good idea?

Pregnant woman with her hands on her bare stomach.

Folic acid is a dietary supplement widely supported by public health experts for its proven benefits during pregnancy. (Getty Images)

Experts emphasize a “food first” approach to nutrients, which means that supplements should do just that – supplement but not compensate for poor eating habits. They may help fill nutritional gaps in certain situations, for example if you restrict food intake to lose weight or if you adhere to a vegan diet, have limited access to healthy foods or have a specific vitamin deficiency, which can be diagnosed by your doctor with an examination. the blood.

Iron deficiency, for example, is not uncommon, especially in menstruating women or people who have sources of blood loss. It can sometimes be difficult to get iron through food alone if you are a vegetarian.

And for many people, it can also be difficult to get vitamin D through diet alone. We get vitamin D mostly from sunlight, but if you wear a thick layer of sunscreen while in the sun or if you don’t get out enough, you’re It may not absorb much. Dark or light skin color may also affect vitamin D absorption.

It is very difficult to get enough vitamin D from food. “There aren’t a lot of food sources for that,” Tan said. “But for most other vitamins, we can get them in food.”

Vitamin B12 is another example, she said, where a doctor may recommend an oral supplement if you have a mild deficiency, which becomes more common with age.

And folic acid, a B vitamin, is one supplement that has broad support from public health experts, even among supplement skeptics. It has been shown to prevent serious birth defects in a baby’s brain and spine, and since the benefits of folic acid are most significant in the early days and weeks of fetal development—before many women know they’re pregnant— The CDC recommends That “all women of childbearing age should get 400 mcg of folic acid daily, in addition to eating food containing folic acid from a varied diet.”

“The risk is too great to take a chance on a woman who thinks she’s getting enough folic acid [through their diet] Moskovitz said. “It’s only because the research is so powerful.”

So do the supplements really work?

While folic acid supplements have proven benefits, the jury is still out on the merits of most other supplements.

In 2013, researchers at Johns Hopkins University Published an editorial Titled “Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements,” one of the authors of the editorial said he does not recommend any supplements other than folic acid for women who may become pregnant.

Earlier this year, the US Preventive Services Task Force issued updated guidance Saying that multivitamin, mineral, and multivitamin supplements are unlikely to prevent cancer or heart disease or affect mortality in general.

“It usually doesn’t hurt to take a multivitamin, but several studies have looked at whether a multivitamin can help improve mortality or quality of life or a sense of well-being or things like that, and nothing has been very conclusive,” Tan said. . “There is no great randomized controlled trial that shows significant health benefits of taking a multivitamin.”

Tan said that if you have a diagnosed deficiency that affects your health — like a vitamin B12 deficiency that affects memory, for example — supplementing can help. But simply taking supplements in hopes of reaping health benefits in the future may not do much.

“Many studies have tried to examine, for example, whether vitamin D can help with heart disease, or help with infections like COVID,” Tan said. “Studies have been mixed, but there hasn’t been anything that definitively proves that a specific vitamin supplement will help you extend your life.”

When it comes to using nutritional supplements to treat or shorten the duration of illnesses like the common cold, results are also mixed. Zinc is a mineral that has been touted by some for its ability to It may reduce the duration of a cold If taken in lozenge form within the first 24 hours of onset of symptoms, however Nothing has been conclusively proven. While some studies have indicated that zinc may shorten colds by a few days, other studies have concluded that zinc has no effect on the duration or severity of a cold.

Most over-the-counter vitamin supplements are safe in limited amounts, so if they make you feel better, it probably wouldn’t hurt to take them. But it is unlikely to cure your ailments, Tan said.

“Will they necessarily cure or reverse the infection? No, probably not,” she said. Nor is it a substitute for any recommended treatment. [from your doctor]. For example, if you have the flu and your doctor recommends that you take Tamiflu because you’re at high risk, taking vitamin C or taking zinc may help, but it’s not a substitute for what your doctor recommends.”

Too much of a good thing?

A shopper looks at a selection of vitamin supplements in the store.

A shopper looks at a selection of vitamin supplements at a store in South Burlington, Vt. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Experts say it’s also possible to have too much of a good thing. Excess water-soluble vitamins are normally excreted through urine, but excess fat-soluble vitamins can remain in your body and have harmful effects.

Long-term use of zinc in high doses, for example, can cause copper deficiency; High doses of vitamin A should not be taken during pregnancy because it can harm an unborn baby; Excessive vitamin D can lead to unhealthy high levels of calcium.

Some supplements may also interfere with medications.

“If you are taking certain medications, you want to be careful, especially with herbal supplements like ashwagandha [or] Moskovitz said herbal supplements like St. John’s wort. These medicines can affect psychotropic medications, such as antidepressants [or] An anti-anxiety medication. Some can actually interfere with heart medications [or] blood thinners That’s why it’s also important to see a professional.”

How can you make sure you’re taking the right supplement?

Dietary supplements are not regulated by the FDA the way medications are; they It is considered a subcategory of foodnot drugs, so anything a manufacturer feels is safe can be put on the market without prior approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

One way to get some assurance that the supplement you’re taking lives up to its claims is to look for the ConsumerLab or United States Pharmacopeia seals on the label, which indicate that the product has been quality tested and verified. And if a product makes “miraculous claims” that it can improve your health, take that with a grain of salt, Tan said.

You should consult your healthcare provider before taking any supplements, Tan and Moskowitz said, because chances are, you may not need them.

“For someone who is looking to add more supplements to their diet, and wants to explore this and see if they could benefit from it, it’s always helpful to first talk to a medical professional and nutritionist, especially one who can order a blood test,” Moskovitz said. “Test your levels before you spend your hard-earned money on something you may not need and probably excrete anyway.”

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