The average American diet often lacks in several essential nutrients. So, it’s no wonder that we look to vitamins to meet our nutritional needs. The problem is, most vitamins don’t necessarily provide better health. And some can even be downright dangerous when taken wrong. So, what are our options?
Are vitamins helpful or hurtful?
We’ve all heard a lot of positive news about supplements. Several studies hail vitamin D as a defense against many diseases, including depression, diabetes and even cancer. Omega-3 fatty acids have been touted for warding off cardiovascular disease and even strokes. And antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and beta-carotene promise to fight heart disease, cancer and even Alzheimer’s.
But here’s the problem: many studies on vitamins are only observational. That means, researchers didn’t test them in a controlled setting using a supplement against a placebo or inactive pill. The results from strict randomized controlled trials just haven’t produced the same good news.
Testing and ethics
As a consumer, who is ultimately in charge of your own health, you need to understand that the often-miraculous claims you read about supplements are not always based on peer-reviewed scientific evidence. And, in many cases, companies don’t even report the possible bad side effects and drug interactions of many dietary supplements. While, certain companies, websites and authors are more ethically responsible, others not so much.
Some supplements that showed health benefits in observational studies turned out — after additional testing — to be ineffective, and worse, risky. Vitamin E, for example, which was initially thought to protect the heart, was later found to increase the risk for bleeding strokes. Earlier studies of folic acid and B vitamins were once believed to prevent heart disease and strokes. However, rigorous studies say that’s no longer the case. In fact, new concerns suggest that high doses of folic acid and other B vitamins actually increase the risk of cancer, according to Harvard Health.
The risk of calcium supplements
But these are not the only supplements that can pose a risk when taken in larger-than-recommended doses, or taken in place of nutrients derived from foods. A new study suggests that calcium supplements — but not calcium from food — might actually be bad for your heart.
Researchers at John Hopkins Medicine analyzed 10 years of medical tests on more than 2,700 people with heart disease. The new study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that taking calcium in the form of supplements may raise the risk of plaque buildup in arteries and heart damage. However, a diet high in calcium-rich foods appears be protective. These study results add to growing scientific concern about the potential harms of supplements.
It’s estimated that 43 percent of American adult men and women take a supplement that includes calcium, according the National Institutes of Health. “When it comes to using vitamin and mineral supplements, particularly calcium supplements being taken for bone health, many
Americans think that more is always better,” says Dr. Erin Michos of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “But our study adds to the body of evidence that excess calcium in the form of supplements may harm the heart and vascular system.”
Always consult with a knowledgeable physician before using calcium supplements.
How much do you really need?
The reality is most people don’t actually know how much of each nutrient they need. Here are Harvard Health’s recommended levels of daily intake for several important nutrients.
- Calcium: 1,000–1,200 mg, don’t go over 2,000 mg
- Folate: 400 mcg, don’t go over 1,000 mg
- Iron: 8 mg, don’t go over 45 mg
- Vitamin A: 700 mcg, don’t go over 3,000 mcg
- Vitamin B6: 1.5 mg, don’t go over 100 mg
- Vitamin B12: 2.4 mcg, upper limit has not been established
- Vitamin C: 75 mg, don’t go over 2,000 mg
- Vitamin D: 600-800 IU, don’t go over 4,000 IU
- Vitamin E: 15 mg, don’t go over 1,000 mg
The best way to get your nutrients
We all need a variety of nutrients daily to stay healthy. That includes calcium and vitamin D to protect bones, folic acid for the production and maintenance of new cells and vitamin A for healthy immune system and vision. However, where we get these nutrients from is important. And the best way is from food — not supplements, says Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
- Calcium: dairy, tofu and fortified orange juice
- Folic acid: spinach, lentils and beef liver
- Iron: Oysters, chicken liver and turkey
- Omega-3: salmon, sardines and flaxseed
- Essential fatty acids: walnuts and soybeans
- Vitamin A: Sweet potatoes, spinach, cantaloupes, tomatoes and carrots
- Vitamin B: Chickpeas, salmon and chicken breast
- Vitamin B12: Clams, beef liver and trout
- Vitamin D: Salmon, tuna and fortified milk, including fortified non-dairy milk
- Vitamin E: Almonds, wheat germ oil, sunflower seeds and peanut butter
Americans spend over $17 billion a year on supplements for health and wellness. Yet, most forms of chronic disease are on the rise. One thing seems clear, supplements aren’t helping very much. That doesn’t mean some supplement aren’t helpful. But, what is becoming more apparent is that supplements won’t help if you don’t first take care of your basics health needs.
Risks associated with supplements
Some supplements can pose a serious health risk. That’s because many supplements contain active ingredients that have strong biological effects in the body, suggest the FDA. This could make them harmful and further complicate your health. The following actions could lead to harmful and even life-threatening consequences:
- Combining supplements without a medical practitioner’s approval
- Using supplements with pharmaceutical medicines (whether prescription or over-the-counter)
- Substituting supplements for your prescription medicines
- Taking too much of one supplement, like vitamin A, vitamin D or iron
In addition, warning labels can be inconsistent. The FDA doesn’t require warning labels on supplements, except for those that contain iron. Therefore, make sure your physician or pharmacist knows exactly what supplements you’re taking with your prescription drugs to avoid negative interactions.
If you absolutely must, then here’s what to look for
If you need to supplement your diet with a multivitamin make sure it includes vitamins A, C, D, E and K, as well as potassium, zinc and iodine. It should also contain no more than 100 percent of your daily value of most vitamins and minerals. So, avoid megavitamins that may contain dangerously high levels of vitamins and minerals.
Maximize absorption by splitting your vitamin in two. Take half in the morning and the other half in the evening. Avoid calcium supplements, unless prescribed by your doctor. Choose whole food sources instead. Since most of us don’t get a lot of sun, vitamin D deficiency is common. Vitamin D is important for calcium absorption and also plays a crucial role in protecting against osteoporosis and bone injury.
The bottom line, if you’re not sure that you need a vitamin or are unsure of which vitamin to take — then don’t. Speak to your healthcare practitioner first, to establish your vitamin requirements.
— Katherine Marko