Should You Take Vitamins?
If you have been on the fence about whether to supplement or not, you are not alone. Many people struggle with this decision and with good reason, the data can be conflicting. However, quality research can help you make the decision to promote optimal health.
You often hear “You can get all the vitamins and minerals you need from food, so you’re really just throwing away money on multivitamins.” Let’s find out.
Vitamins are organic compounds that are essential in small amounts in order to maintain normal everyday metabolic processes. Except for vitamin D, our body does not have the ability to produce these chemical compounds, leaving the regular diet and dietary supplements as the only source of these important nutrients. This is where the problem begins. According to the data published by Center for Disease Control (CDC), it appears quite alarming that less than 1 in 10 Americans eats enough fruits and vegetables, which are a powerful source of vitamins and minerals. Furthermore, there is a concern regarding the quality of the food we eat, and the effects of refined and highly processed foods which are stripped of most all nutrients, on the public health. Additionally, many expert controversies surround the benefits of dietary supplements, where one side claims that food alone represents a sufficient source of vitamins, while the other side recommends the routine vitamin supplementation. Which statement is true? Let’s discuss.
The Great Dilemma
Studies investigating the effects of vitamin supplementation tend to disagree with each other. In general, the majority of studies have significant limitations including the absence of baseline measurements of serum vitamin levels as well as the lack of studied vitamin dose. According to the recent study published in the Journal of American Medical Association (AMA), supplementation with calcium and vitamin D did not reduce the risk of pathological fractures in the elderly population (1). Some limitations of this study included the narrow population range (the elderly), as well as the lack of proper eligibility criteria, such as excluding those with malabsorption, the absence of defined dose, as well as the lack of baseline vitamin values. However, recent data also support the association between sub-adequate vitamin intake and the occurrence of chronic disease. Inadequate vitamin intake has been linked with an increased risk of the development of chronic diseases including coronary heart disease, cancer, and osteoporosis (2). As you can see from the above, the results appear controversial and there is still lack of a proper consensus if the vitamin supplements play a significant role in disease prevention.
Supplementation with folic acid before pregnancy effectively prevents the inadequate development of nervous system in a child (3). The majority of national medical institutions and health authorities recommend the folic acid supplementation. Alcohol consumption, a vegan or vegetarian diet and poor dietary habits may increase the requirement for vitamin B12. Supplementation with vitamin B12 is safe and effective in such cases (4). Additionally, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends supplementation with vitamin A in developing countries, even if there is no clinical evidence of vitamin A deficiency. Vitamin A and D have shown to improve the function of immune system, directly reducing the probability of infection and decreasing the severity of an infectious disease. Due to the beneficial effects on the immune system, vitamin A supplementation is advised in children at the community level (5).
Taking a multi-vitamin shows increased cellular health – preventive and longevity effects in a daily dose.
There are many supplements used to target and address many health issues that are beneficial such as omega 3 fish oil to optimize brain health and reduce low-level inflammation, vitamin D to optimize immune function and magnesium to help increase mitochondrial health and reduce stress.
The Food We Eat
A large body of evidence now shows that healthy dietary habits can help maintain good health and reduce the risk of chronic disease. Unfortunately, the patterns of nutrition in most of the Americans are not in line with recommended dietary habits (6). Low in fruits, vegetables, dairy, and oils, however, rich in sugar, saturated fats and salt – this is a common nutrition pattern in the significant portion of people living in the USA. Additionally, many consume a significantly high amount of nutrient empty calories each day. It is already well recognized that such nutrition habits lead to obesity and other chronic health conditions including hypertension, metabolic disturbances, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. The main defect of the described dietary patterns is an inadequate intake of dietary fibers, essential vitamins, and minerals that are key elements of a proper metabolism. Exercise can also increase the need for micro-nutrients.
There is a concern if the food supply we have today can provide enough nutrients as it did in the past. The problem is in modern methods used in food industry, where the use of synthetic fertilizers decreases the nutrient density. Overproduction has depleted valuable micronutrients from the soils. Agricultural chemicals that are used in large amounts may have toxic effects and may reduce the overall density of micronutrients in the food we consume each day. This raises an important question regarding the availability of healthy, fresh and nutrient-dense food.
Another concern; food transit time of weeks – trucking, shipping and more as well as the amount of time it sits on the store shelf and the storage time once in the consumers hands, all degrade the micro-nutrient level of the food. Each day further depletes the nutrition of the food.
Studies regarding the beneficial effects of vitamin supplementation have contradictory results. Standard American Diet cannot yield a satisfactory amount of vitamins and micronutrients that are essential for maintaining health and for disease prevention. Vitamin supplementation is strongly advised in some conditions which do not necessarily include vitamin deficiency. Looking at the data presented in this article, we can draw a logical conclusion that supplementation with vitamins is safe, has beneficial effects on the health outcomes and may lead to improvement of overall health status when consumed in a balanced and proper manner.
- Association Between Calcium or Vitamin D Supplementation and Fracture Incidence in Community-Dwelling Older Adults. A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Jia-Guo Zhao, MD, et al. s.l. : JAMA, 2017, Vol. 318(24). 2466-2482.
- Vitamins for chronic disease prevention in adults: scientific review. Kathleen M Fairfield, Robert H Fletcher. s.l. : JAMA, 2017, Vol. 287. 3116-3126.
- Common congenital anomalies: Environmental causes and prevention with folic acid-containing multivitamins. Sarmah S, Muralidharan P, Marrs JA. s.l. : Birth Defects Res C Embryo Today, 2016, Vol. 108(3). 274.
- Establishing safe and potentially efficacious fortification contents for folic acid and vitamin B12. O, Dary. s.l. : Food Nutr Bull, 2008, Vol. 29(2 Suppl). S214.
- Vitamin A supplementation and child mortality. A meta-analysis. Fawzi WW, Chalmers TC, Herrera MG, Mosteller F. s.l. : JAMA, 1993, Vol. 269(7). 898.
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. Richard Olson, MD, MPH et al. s.l. : U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2015.