The Vitamin Myth

While some vitamin supplements can boost your health, others may actually harm.

By Neena Samuel from Reader's Digest | November 2007

Vitamins and supplements also lack the government oversight that medical drugs get, and this adds to the confusion and potential dangers. Consumers have no real way of knowing whether labels accurately reflect what’s actually in a pill., a supplement industry watchdog site, recently tested 21 different brands of multivitamins and found that 11 failed quality standards, including meeting their own label claims. For example, their test showed that one product had only about half the calcium its label boasted, and another had almost 300 percent more. One product was found to be tainted with lead. Three didn’t break apart properly, violating the U.S. Pharmacopeia’s 30-minute limit on how quickly a pill should dissolve (to make sure you get the full dose).

Another study discovered that half of the B-complex supplements analyzed didn’t provide the claimed amounts of folic acid. But that should change over the next few years, thanks to a new FDA ruling that says supplement manufacturers must ensure their products are tested for purity and accurately labeled.

The Real Benefits
Not all the news is disappointing. Studies show that vitamin D plays an important role in the absorption of calcium and in boosting bone health. The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends that adults under 50 get 1,000 mg of calcium and 400 to 800 IU daily of vitamin D3 (the form of D that best supports bone health), and those 50 and older get 1,200 mg of calcium and 800 to 1,000 IU of D3 from food and supplements. But vitamin D may do even more, as Reader’s Digest reported in September 2006. Several studies suggest a link between vitamin D deficiency and cancer, as well as other diseases. And there seems to be little downside to taking vitamin D supplements.

But some people may need more than the standard recommended amounts of certain vitamins, including pregnant women, who require extra folic acid to help prevent birth defects, and the millions of young women with anemia, who may benefit from iron supplements. Postmenopausal women can take calcium and vitamin D to reduce fracture risk, and those at risk for age-related macular degeneration may benefit from antioxidant and zinc supplements.

Food Versus a Pill
Clearly, the jury’s still out on what vitamin supplements can really do. An NIH panel determined last year that there wasn’t yet enough evidence either for or against the use of multivitamins to make a recommendation. One thing that’s clear, though: Getting vitamins and minerals from pills is not as effective as getting them from food, says Dr. Roizen. No one knows for sure why a food source may be more beneficial, but one theory is that nature provides a perfect balance of compounds that isn’t fully replicable in the lab.

While there’s evidence that vitamins C and E and beta carotene protect the heart when you get them from food, a recent Harvard study found that they don’t provide protection when you get them from a supplement. The Women’s Antioxidant Cardiovascular Study followed 8,100 women with strong risk factors for heart disease for nine years, and the researchers concluded that “widespread use of these individual agents for cardiovascular protection does not appear warranted.”

Rather than just turning to pills as a remedy, eating a healthy, balanced diet may help you avoid those conditions in the first place, says Robert Eckel, MD, who specializes in preventive cardiology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and is the immediate past president of the American Heart Association.

“I believe in getting the DRI from food as a way of preventing deficiency diseases,” says Dr. Roizen. “But I take a vitamin and mineral supplement as an insurance policy against a less than perfect diet.”

“There have been many studies looking at supplements,” says Blumberg, “but the most consistent evidence we’ve had over the past 30 years is that eating a healthy diet, low in salt and saturated fat, losing extra weight, exercising moderately, reducing stress, and quitting smoking are our best guarantees against disease and premature death.”

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