Vitamin Supplements: Healthy or Hoax?

Updated:Feb 26,2014

Woman Looking at Vitamin SupplementCan vitamin and mineral supplements really make you healthier?

Overwhelmed by the towering shelves of vitamin and mineral supplements in the grocery store?

There are so many options that sound great, but there are also so many questions: Which ones really work? Exactly how effective are they? Are they worth the money?

These are good questions for anybody who wants to live healthier and avoid heart disease and stroke. But before you start buying everything from Vitamin A to Zinc, remember there’s only one way to be sure you’re getting the vitamins and minerals your body needs: Eat healthy foods. 

Supplements can be beneficial, but the key to vitamin and mineral success is eating a balanced diet. Before taking vitamin and mineral supplements, talk to your physician about your personal dietary plan.
 
Food first!
“Nutritionists recommend food first because foods provide a variety of vitamins and minerals and also dietary factors that are not found in a vitamin or mineral supplement,”  said Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., R.D., and Distinguished Professor of Nutrition at the Pennsylvania State University’s College of Health and Human Development.

For example, she points out that foods provide many bioactive compounds and dietary fiber that typically aren’t found in supplements. And some supplements don’t allow for full absorption of vitamins. 

“If taken on an empty stomach without any food, some of the fat-soluble vitamins will not be absorbed as well as they would if the supplement was consumed with a food that provides fat,” said Kris-Etherton, who also is a volunteer with the American Heart Association.

Supplements May Help
While diet is the key to getting the best vitamins and minerals, supplements can help. For instance, if you’re doing your best to eat healthy foods but still are deficient in some areas, supplements can help. The key is to ensure they’re taken in addition to healthy diet choices and nutrient-dense foods. They’re supplements, not replacements. Only use supplements if your healthcare professional has recommended them.

 “A supplement will generally provide 100 percent of the daily recommended allowance for all vitamins and minerals,” Kris-Etherton said. “Therefore, many nutritionists will agree that a supplement is OK if nutrient needs are not being met by a healthy food-based diet.”

Do What’s Best for You
As said earlier, before taking vitamin and mineral supplements, talk to your physician about your personal dietary plan. Also, consider these recommended “do’s and don'ts” from the American Heart Association:

Do this:
  • Eat a healthy diet. There’s just no substitute for a balanced, nutritious diet that limits excess calories, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and dietary cholesterol. This approach has been shown to reduce coronary heart disease risk in healthy people and those with heart disease.
  • Patients with heart disease should consume about 1 gram of omega-3 fatty acids called EPA + DHA. This should ideally come from fish. This can hard to get by diet alone, so a supplement could be needed. As always, consult with a physician first.
  • If you have elevated triglycerides, try to get 2 to 4 grams per day of EPA+DHA.
Don’t do this:
  • Don’t take antioxidant vitamin supplements such as A, C and E. Scientific evidence does not suggest these can eliminate the need to reduce blood pressure, lower blood cholesterol or stop smoking.
  • Do not rely only on supplements. There isn’t sufficient data to suggest that healthy people benefit by taking certain vitamin or mineral supplements in excess of the daily recommended allowance. Some observational studies have suggested that using these can lower rates of cardiovascular disease and/or lower risk factor levels. However, it’s unclear in these studies whether supplements caused these improvements.

For more information, check out the American Heart Association’s Scientific Position.


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